The Remarkable Life and Career of a Free African-American Cabinetmaker

Dressing Bureau attributed to Thomas Day, ca. 1840. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Henry Francis du Pont Collectors Circle 2016.0039.

Dressing Bureau attributed to Thomas Day, ca. 1840. Museum purchase with funds provided by the Henry Francis du Pont Collectors Circle 2016.0039.

This mid-19th-century mahogany veneer dressing bureau, one of Winterthur’s newest furniture acquisitions, is a visually striking object with an even more striking history. Although the dresser conforms to popular urban furniture designs of its era (with its distinctive carved bracket feet; whimsical,  pierced looking glass frame; and the open pierced scrolls that flank the front), its maker and his career were highly unusual. The piece was made by the Milton, North Carolina, shop of Thomas Day (1801–1861).

 Thomas Day Historic Marker in front of the Union Tavern in Milton, North Carolina, Thomas Day’s home and workshop. Erected in 1999 by the Division of Archives and History (Marker Number G-93). This particular image taken from http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~ncccha/biographies/thomasday.html

Thomas Day Historic Marker in front of the Union Tavern in Milton, North Carolina, Thomas Day’s home and workshop. Erected in 1999 by the Division of Archives and History (Marker Number G-93). This image taken from http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~ncccha/biographies/thomasday.html

Tracing this dresser back to Thomas Day tells us an important story about Day, his family, and his exceptional career in the context of the antebellum South. He was a free African-American cabinetmaker, who, at the height of his career in the 1850s, operated the most prosperous furniture business in North Carolina. He was one of very few free African-Americans who found success as a trained artisan, in a period when most free men worked as unskilled laborers or servants. In his workshop were both white and black and free and enslaved workers, and yet he was also a supporter of abolitionist activities. Remarkably, during his lifetime he also earned the patronage and respect of his white southern neighbors. He did this despite the overarching racial tensions of the age and the fear that some power-wielding white Americans felt regarding the growing ranks of free African-Americans in their communities.

Hand-colored lithograph titled “Practical Amalgamation (Musical Soirée),” ca. 1839, by Edward Williams Clay. In the collection of the American Antiquarian Society, 153050. (http://gigi.mwa.org/netpub/server.np?quickfind=153050&sorton=filename&catalog=catalog&site=public&template=results.np)

Hand-colored lithograph titled “Practical Amalgamation (Musical Soirée),” ca. 1839, by Edward Williams Clay. In the collection of the American Antiquarian Society, 153050. http://gigi.mwa.org/netpub/server.np?quickfind=153050&sorton=filename&catalog=catalog&site=public&template=results.np

Day was the product of several generations of mixed-race unions (where the children born inherited their freedom from their white mothers). These unions established the Day family as members of the South’s growing class of free people of color. Thomas’s father, John, was purportedly born to a white woman and her coach driver. John’s white grandfather sent him away to be raised by a white family, and they facilitated his training as a cabinetmaker. He passed down that skillset to his two sons, John Jr. and Thomas.

President James Madison’s 1816 membership certificate to the American Colonization Society. The James Madison Papers at the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/resource/mjm.18_0589_0590/

President James Madison’s 1816 membership certificate to the American Colonization Society. The James Madison Papers at the Library of Congress. https://www.loc.gov/resource/mjm.18_0589_0590/

The choices made by John Jr. and Thomas exemplify some of the few options available to free men of color in the early 1800s. Although John Jr. did work for a time as a cabinetmaker, in 1821 he began training as a Baptist preacher, and in 1830, he embarked on a new mission. That year he moved his own young family to Africa, to the newly formed free black colony of Liberia. This controversial plan was the brainchild of the American Colonization Society, formed in 1816, founded on the credo that migration and colonization could be the solution to racial unrest in America.

Thomas Day business advertisement, published in the Milton Gazette & Roanoke Advertiser in March 1827. North Carolina Office of Archives and History (although I snagged the better quality digital image from http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128849634)

Thomas Day business advertisement, published in the Milton Gazette & Roanoke Advertiser in March 1827. North Carolina Office of Archives and History  http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=128849634

In contrast, in the 1820s Thomas established himself permanently in the growing mercantile center of Milton, North Carolina, and actively cultivated his social and business ties with his white neighbors. He became a respected member of his community, admired for his work ethic and craftsmanship, and also purportedly light-skinned enough that he could be conceptualized as separate from the larger black community.

The Union Tavern in Milton, North Carolina. Photo by Tim Buchman

The Union Tavern in Milton, North Carolina. Photo by Tim Buchman

That respect ran deep enough that in 1830, Milton’s white community supported him in his legal battle to bring his free African-American bride, Virginia-born Aquilla Wilson, to live with him in North Carolina. An 1826 law banned free people of color from migrating into North Carolina, but a written petition of support signed by 61 white citizens of Milton and Caswell counties gained them an official exemption. Signed by many prominent white citizens, the petition argued that Thomas was a “cabinetmaker by trade, a first rate workman, steady and industrious man,” and above all else, “a highminded, good and valuable citizen.” Thomas Day continued to work in Milton, with his workshop in the Union Tavern building, which still stands on Milton’s main street, until just before his death in 1861.

: Minutes of the Fifth Annual Convention for the Improvement of the Free People of Colour in the United States, 1835. Fully digitized by the University of Delaware’s “Colored Conventions: Bringing Nineteenth-Century Black Organizing to Digital Life,” http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/277.

: Minutes of the Fifth Annual Convention for the Improvement of the Free People of Colour in the United States, 1835. Fully digitized by the University of Delaware’s “Colored Conventions: Bringing Nineteenth-Century Black Organizing to Digital Life,” http://coloredconventions.org/items/show/277.

Contrary to the fact that he himself owned slaves, new research has revealed his secret ties to northern abolitionists. In the spring of 1835, Thomas attended “the Fifth Annual Convention for the Improvement of the Free People of Color in the United States” in Philadelphia, where he most likely met with abolitionists.

It would have been noteworthy that an affluent southern man attended such an event. But for Thomas Day, a free man of color whose position depended upon his careful negotiation of the color line, it was radical. Evidence does suggest that Thomas kept his potential abolitionist sentiments concealed from his southern neighbors, his circumstances forcing him to live a kind of double life. Nevertheless, he did maintain ties to northern abolitionist friends throughout his life and sent his children to be educated at Wesleyan Academy in Wilbraham, Massachusetts, a school run by a Methodist cleric, whom contemporaries described as a “flaming abolitionist.” Thomas Day’s life was complex and contradictory and this dressing bureau provides a fascinating portal through which to glimpse some of the struggles faced by America’s small minority of free people of color prior to the Civil War.

The bureau, along with other recent Winterthur acquisitions, will be on view in the Galleries in the spring 2017. Stay tuned in the coming months for more posts on new acquisitions!

Post by Nalleli Guillen, Sewell C. Biggs Curatorial Fellow, Museum Collections Department, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

References:

References

Berlin, Ira. Slaves without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South. New York: Pantheon Books. 1974

Dunbar, Erica Armstrong. A Fragile Freedom: African American Women and Emancipation in the Antebellum City. New Haven: Yale University Press. 2008.

Marshall, Patricia Phillips and Jo Ramsay Leimenstoll. Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. 2010.

Nash, Gary B. Forging Freedom: The Formation of Philadelphia’s Black Community, 1720-1840. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1988.

Prown, Jonathan. “The Furniture of Thomas Day: A Reevaluation.” Winterthur Portfolio, Vol. 33, No. 4, Race and Ethnicity in American Material Life (Winter, 1998): 215-229.

Rogers, Patricia Dane and Laurel Crone Sneed. “The Missing Chapter in the Life of Thomas Day.” American Furniture (2013): 100-154.

http://thomasday.net

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Traces of Philadelphia in an Early Silkwork Picture

Needlework picture, probably depicting the meeting of Isaac and Rebecca. Attributed to Nancy Ann Carlisle, ca. 1690–1740. Mid-Atlantic region, possibly worked in Philadelphia. Embroidered silk on satin weave silk. Museum purchase with funds provided by Lammot du Pont Copeland (1953.0152.007A). Courtesy Winterthur Museum.

Needlework picture, probably depicting the meeting of Isaac and Rebecca. Attributed to
Nancy Ann Carlisle, ca. 1690–1740. Mid-Atlantic region, possibly worked in Philadelphia.
Embroidered silk on satin weave silk. Museum purchase with funds provided by Lammot
du Pont Copeland (1953.0152.007A). Courtesy Winterthur Museum.

Samplers and needlework pictures can provide a tantalizing sense of connection to early  American history, serving as rare links to the personal experiences of girls and young women of the era. Even more alluring for their mystery are those pieces passed down without signature or documentation, as is the case with a silkwork picture in Winterthur’s collections since the 1950s. Long said by family tradition to have been made in early eighteenth-century rural New Jersey, this elaborate piece is made still more complex by a reinvestigation of its origins.

Both its old-fashioned visual style and its biblical subject are suggestive of seventeenth-century English embroidery tradition (see footnote 1) . Points of comparison include the Stuart-style dress, the simply executed facial features, and motifs such as the rolling hills and distant tents, the abundant small animals and flowers, the anthropomorphized sun, and the prevalence of oak trees with snake-like trunks and lumpy leaves.

But what of the family stories that the piece was worked in colonial New Jersey by a girl named Ann Carlisle? Genealogical research reveals nothing to support the traditional creation place. Yet, there are possible connections between the previous owner and an early eighteenth-century Carlisle family, well-off settlers of Sussex County, Delaware (see footnote 2). Given the region’s proximity to Philadelphia, it’s possible that just such an affluent Delaware family may have sent their daughter to be educated in the city (see footnote 3). In further exploring the visual clues, we find additional encouragement for a Philadelphia connection.

The picture’s mount represents a powerful piece of evidence (see footnote 4). With the needlework laced to a cedar board through a series of small drilled holes, the mount strongly resembles those of the two Sarah Wistar pictures in Winterthur’s collection and, according to curator Linda Eaton, of other work from the Philadelphia school of Elizabeth Marsh and her daughter Ann (see footnote 5). Eaton has argued that mounts and original frames are crucial, and often overlooked, factors in discerning the origins of samplers and embroidered pictures. The piece under discussion may be another case in point, with the mount providing important support for a possible Philadelphia origin (see footnote 6).

Striking visual similarities to other Philadelphia needlework pictures strengthen the possible connection to this city, and to the Marsh school, in particular. In a 1738 sconce by Margaret Wistar, sister of Sarah Wistar and a likely student of Elizabeth Marsh (see footnote 7), we see multiple points of comparison (see footnote 2). The treatment of the sun, dog, sheep, and butterfly are all notably similar to these same elements in the present picture. The flying golden birds in particular share the same positioning of body, tail, and wings, the same tufted head, and the same groupings of feathers on the tail and wings. This correspondence carries over to other examples of the same subject, including a circa 1730 picture executed by Ann Marsh herself (see footnote 8).

Sconce, Margaret Wistar, Philadelphia, 1738. Silk on silk satin with linen border. Courtesy Wyck Historic House, Garden and Farm, Philadelphia.

Sconce, Margaret Wistar, Philadelphia, 1738. Silk on silk
satin with linen border. Courtesy Wyck Historic House, Garden
and Farm, Philadelphia.

Detail of needlework picture by Ann Carlisle

Detail of needlework picture by Ann Carlisle

The five-pointed flower in the middle right section of the present picture is an additional motif that appears in the work of Ann Marsh and her students, and, as noted by Amanda Isaac, in Philadelphia silkwork in general (see footnote 9). Comparing details from the present picture and one of Sarah Wistar’s works at Winterthur, we find a particularly strong visual correspondence. In each of the buff-colored flowers shown, the center is executed in French knots, and the smooth, single-lobed leaves are skillfully shaded using multiple hues of silk, suggesting yet another similarity between the piece under discussion and the needlework of Philadelphia.

Despite a lack of genealogical or historical evidence to strengthen the proposed Philadelphia origin, these visual and technical points of comparison are compelling reasons to attribute the piece to the area. A connection to the Marsh school represents an even more tantalizing possibility: in the annals of American needlework history, Elizabeth Marsh is a major figure, credited with setting the course for the development of Philadelphia’s sophisticated style (see footnote 10). A confirmed connection to his teacher could strengthen our understanding of an important needlework school. Further, in this picture, we may have an unusual early survival of particularly elaborate work, challenging our assumptions about the level of accomplishment of women and girls of the era.

Needlework picture, detail, Sarah Wistar, 1752. Philadelphia. Museum purchase (1964.0120.002 A). Courtesy Winterthur Museum.

Needlework picture, detail, Sarah Wistar, 1752. Philadelphia.
Museum purchase (1964.0120.002 A). Courtesy Winterthur Museum.

A Winterthur Primer reprinted with permission from Antiques & Fine Art Magazine.

Post by Emelie Gevalt, a second-year Lois F. McNeil Fellow in the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture.

Footnotes:

  1. The resemblance to seventeenth-century needlework, coupled with the similarities to significantly later works, as discussed in this article, make it particularly challenging to date this piece. A wide date range of 1690–1740 is appropriate until further research can be done on needlework in the early colonial period.

  2. The piece descended in the family Harry M. Wilson of Cumberland County, New Jersey; Wilson’s great-grandfather was William Carlisle, who, according to a death record, was originally from Delaware. Although no definitive link has been established between William Carlisle and the Carlisles of Sussex County, Delaware, there are instances of both families using the surname Pemberton as a first name for their sons, suggesting a common ancestry. See the 1850 Maurice River, New Jersey, census record for William Carlisle, and Esther Littleford Woodworth-Barnes, “Captain Thomas Pemberton (ca. 1655–ca 1717) of Maryland and Delaware, “National Genealogical Society Quarterly: 265-269. Photocopied record, Family History Folders, “Pemberton.”Delaware Historical Society Research Library. For additional documentation of these findings and for further genealogical research, see Emelie Gevalt, “From England to Philadelphia: Distinguishing Influences from Origins in a Silkwork Picture,” Winterthur registrar files, 2016.

  3. I am indebted to Gloria Seaman Allen, Cynthia Steinhoff, and Amy Finkel for these suggestions, in email correspondence with the author, April 2016.

  4. Linda Eaton, in conversation with the author, March 2016.
  5.  Linda Eaton, “Needlework and their Frames: Multimedia Objects. Winterthur Primer,” Antiques and Fine Art Magazine (14thAnniversary, vol. XIII, no. 1): 268–270.

  6. Further research is needed to determine whether these types of mounts are indicative of a specifically Philadelphia origin or simply of a Mid-Atlantic one.

  7. Betty Ring, Girlhood Embroidery: American Samplers & Pictorial Needlework 1650-1850 (New York: Knopf, 1993): 354

  8. See Ring, 355, for the Ann Marsh sconce; see Winterthur object number 1966.1391A for another example of this subject.
  9. Amanda Isaac, “Ann Flower’s Sketchbook: Drawing, Needlework, and Women’s Artistry in Colonial Philadelphia,” Winterthur Portfolio 41 (Summer/Autumn 2007): 152
  10. Ring, 332.
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A Woman Lithographer in Nineteenth-Century New York

Frances Flora Bond Palmer (1812–1876) is the most important woman lithographer of nineteenth-century America. She is best known for her association with Currier & Ives, where, after joining the firm in 1851, she produced more prints than any other artist. Before then, Palmer held an independent career both in England and in New York, where she settled with her family in 1844. She exhibited at the National Academy of Design and the American Institute, executed dozens of framing prints, and created lithographs for several illustrated books. Winterthur’s museum and library collections hold several examples of her early American work. Looking at these lithographic prints created before her long collaboration with Currier & Ives gives us insight into her position as an artist lithographer in nineteenth-century New York, and her contributions to the expanding field of American lithography.

One of the largest of Palmer’s early New York commissions consisted of the lithographs that reproduced William H. Ranlett’s architectural drawings of site view, elevations, and floor plans for Ranlett’s two-volume book The Architect, published in New York between 1847 and 1849. In this publication, Palmer used a two-stone lithographic technique that reflects her training with Louis Haghe (1806–1885), one of the founders of Day & Haghe, the leading lithographic firm of early Victorian London.

Haghe was a famous architectural draftsman, a watercolor artist, and the lithographer of David Roberts’s watercolor drawings for The Holy Land, Syria, Idumea, Arabia, Egypt and Nubia (1842-1846), widely considered the culmination of Haghe’s tinted lithographic technique. Palmer was in Haghe’s workshop during the early stages of the preparation of Roberts’ watercolors. She, in turn, brought to Day & Haghe an excellent foundation in drawing, perspective, and watercolors learned at Mary Linwood’s academy for girls in Leicester. With Haghe, Palmer perfected her knowledge of drawing and drafting, and mastered the technique of tinted lithography. Combining a stone with crayon drawing with another stone of monochrome tint, a tinted lithograph could imitate the effect of the watercolor wash often used in the background of a drawing.

William H. Ranlett (1806–1865), The Architect; F. & S. Palmer, lithographers (New York: DeWitt & Davenport, 1847–1849). Printed Book and Periodical Collection, Winterthur Library.

William H. Ranlett (1806–1865), The Architect; F. & S. Palmer, lithographers (New York:
DeWitt & Davenport, 1847–1849). Printed Book and Periodical Collection, Winterthur Library.

Church of the Holy Trinity, another early New York print by Palmer, shows the artist’s mastery of multiple-stone lithographic technique. Here, Palmer prepared one tint stone with a broad expanse of solid blue tone for the sky, with small areas removed or “gummed out” to create the white clouds. Instead of limiting her use of secondary stones to tint—the lithographic imitation of watercolor washes—she created two crayon drawings on two separate stones. One was printed in black, to delineate the contours and architectural details of the church. The second one, printed in brown ink, highlighted the texture of the church’s stonework and enhanced the dramatic effect of the sunlight on the ornate facade of the Gothic Revival architecture.

Church of the Holy Trinity, Brooklyn Heights, F. & S. Palmer, lithographers; Frances B. Palmer, artist, New York, 1845. Three-stone lithograph printed in black, tan, and blue inks on wove paper. Winterthur Museum (1973.0567); Library Purchase.

Church of the Holy Trinity, Brooklyn Heights, F. & S. Palmer, lithographers;
Frances B. Palmer, artist, New York, 1845. Three-stone lithograph printed in black,
tan, and blue inks on wove paper. Winterthur Museum (1973.0567); Library Purchase.

A closer look at Palmer’s early work in New York calls attention to her role in the development of American lithography in the 1850s. More specifically, her fine use of multiple stones in the drawing of Church of the Holy Trinity suggests that she had a critical influence at Currier & Ives. Nathaniel Currier almost entirely limited his publications to black and white lithographs before hiring her. After 1851, the firm published several of their now iconic compositions, drawn by Palmer and printed with more than one stone. One of them, Wooding-Up on the Mississippi, reveals how her brilliant handling of tonal values created a nocturne landscape that barely needs the addition of hand coloring that we expect to see on a Currier & Ives print.

Palmer is one of the artists whose work is explored in Lasting Impressions: The Artists of Currier & Ives, at Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library, from September 17, 2016, until January 8, 2017.

“Wooding up” on the Mississippi, F. F. Palmer, artist; Currier & Ives, lithographers, New York, ca. 1863. Library of Congress (LC-DIG-pga-00976).

“Wooding up” on the Mississippi, F. F. Palmer, artist; Currier & Ives, lithographers,
New York, ca. 1863. Library of Congress (LC-DIG-pga-00976).

Post by Marie-Stephanie Delamaire, associate curator of fine arts at Winterthur. A Winterthur Primer reprinted with permission from Antiques & Fine Art Magazine

 

 

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Domestic Politics

Glass flask with the bust of Zachary Taylor, made at the Dyottville Glass Works, Philadelphia, 1846−40. Gift of Mrs. Harry W. Lunger 1973.402.6

Glass flask with the bust of Zachary Taylor, made at the Dyottville Glass
Works, Philadelphia, 1846−40. Gift of Mrs. Harry W. Lunger 1973.402.6

Every four years, after each presidential election, there are newspaper op-eds claiming that the campaign that year was longer, nastier, and more divisive than ever. The truth of the matter is that presidential campaigns of the past could be just as long, nasty, and divisive as modern political contests. They certainly could be more colorful.

The populist campaigns of the second quarter of the nineteenth century were marked by an explosion of material culture bearing slogans, icons, and portraits of the candidates. From hickory canes for “Old Hickory” Andrew Jackson in 1828 to log cabin carriages for William Henry Harrison in 1840 and glass flasks molded with battle cries surrounding the bust of Zachary Taylor in 1848, a full range of decorative and useful objects was fashioned to show partisan support that lasted well beyond an election.

Material culture allowed a campaign to cross the threshold from the public sphere into the private home and become a part of daily life. Ceramics, textiles, and personal accessories populated homes with images of a favorite candidate. In the 1820s, copper lusterware pitchers bearing a brooding portrait of “General Jackson, The Hero of New Orleans” brought the volatile politicians to the dining table. Following Jackson’s win in the 1828 election, housewives could make curtains from a victorious inauguration textile, placing the general among the pantheon of U.S. presidents.

In 1840 fervent partisans showed their Whiggish loyalty by purchasing entire sets of dining and teawares decorated with a special pattern in support of William Henry Harrison. Produced by William Adams and Sons in Staffordshire, England, the pattern was named “Log Cabin,” after Harrison’s iconic residence on the frontier. The story of retired General Harrison’s welcoming an injured soldier into his modest home was also printed on bandboxes and molded into glass cup plates for use and display in the home. His log cabin became the logo of the Whig campaign, drawing a domestic connection between the candidate and the electorate.

Lusterware pitcher with the portrait of Andrew Jackson, made in Staffordshire, England, 1824−30. Gift of Mr. B. Thatcher Feustman 1966.69

Lusterware pitcher with the portrait of
Andrew Jackson, made in Staffordshire,
England, 1824−30. Gift of Mr. B. Thatcher
Feustman 1966.69

Teacup printed with the “Log Cabin” pattern in support of William Henry Harrison, made by William Adams and Sons, Staffordshire, England, 1840. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont 1969.1738.1

Teacup printed with the “Log
Cabin” pattern in support of William
Henry Harrison, made by William Adams
and Sons, Staffordshire, England, 1840.
Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont
1969.1738.1

Printed textile portraying Zackary Taylor, made in the United States, 1848. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont 1969.3332.1

Printed textile portraying Zackary Taylor, made in the
United States, 1848. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont
1969.3332.1

In 1848 another victorious general was running for president. Images of Zachary Taylor and his campaigns in the Mexican-American War were repeated on textiles that draped the homes of his political supporters. The patterns combined popular decorative motifs with campaign imagery, such as the textile for curtains and quilts that showed General Taylor and his horse, Old Whitey.

Although women in the Jacksonian era couldn’t vote, much less run for president, they did find their own ways of participating in political campaigns. During Jackson’s campaigns in the 1820s, they could purchase, use, and display pin boxes showing support for a candidate. The pincushions on top of each box were stamped and painted with slogans such as “Victory to Jackson,” “Old Hickory Forever,” and “Don’t Forget New Orleans.” Jackson’s portrait was mounted under glass under the lid of each box. Sewing was also a prominent way women were actively involved in campaigns. From the blue and red textiles with a pattern of log cabins and William Henry Harrison on wholecloth quilts in the 1840s to a large needlework portrait of Henry Clay made by twelve-year-old Agnes D. Jackson stitchery highlighted not only a young woman’s skill but her political opinions as well.

Badges, buttons, ribbons, and personal accessories marked men as partisans and allowed them to carry their candidate with them throughout the day. In 1828 circular tobacco boxes bearing the portrait of General Jackson could be slipped into a pocket or displayed on a desk. In 1844 cigar cases were decorated with the portrait of Henry Clay. If a supporter preferred pipes to cigars, he could purchase a Clay pipe molded with the face of the candidate. “Log Cabin” beaver hats and “Rough and Ready” straw hats also allowed supporters to make their views known.

Needlework portrait of Henry Clay, made by Agnes D. Jackson, Rockaway, New Jersey, 1850. Gift of Ruth Gardiner Rathburn Pitman 2001.14

Needlework portrait of Henry Clay, made by
Agnes D. Jackson, Rockaway, New Jersey, 1850.
Gift of Ruth Gardiner Rathburn Pitman 2001.14

Leather and papier-mâché cigar case decorated with the portrait of Henry Clay, made in the United States, 1844. Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont 1965.2092

Leather and papier-mâché cigar case decorated with
the portrait of Henry Clay, made in the United States, 1844.
Bequest of Henry Francis du Pont 1965.2092

As material evidence of partisan enthusiasm, political material culture existed for all citizens, whether male or female. Campaign objects graced shop windows and dinner tables as well as the coats and heads of supporters. Not only markers of inclusion with a specific group, they were the ultimate demonstration of dedication and enthusiasm for a candidate and his party.

Post by Lydia Blackmore, decorative arts curator at The Historic New Orleans Collection and a 2013 graduate of the Winterthur Program in American Material Culture.

 

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Research Never Tasted So Good

Election Day in Philadelphia by John Lewis Krimmel, 1815, Philadelphia, PA, Oil paint, Canvas, Museum purchase with funds provided by Henry Francis du Pont, 1959.131

Election Day in Philadelphia by John Lewis Krimmel, 1815, Philadelphia, PA, Oil paint, Canvas, Museum purchase with funds provided by Henry Francis du Pont, 1959.131

As the 2016 election season reaches its climax, one of our research fellows has provided us with a delicious treat to celebrate the occasion. Bryce Evans, senior lecturer in history at Liverpool Hope University, England, is researching the history of an aptly named historical goodie: the election cake.

This dish has its roots in the enormous cakes New England women baked to sustain militias. However, after the American Revolution it became associated with elections and was offered as an incentive for men to cast their ballot. Although there are many variations on this treat, it is typically filled with a variety of dried fruits, spices, and plenty of booze. The cake is unique in that it contains yeast, making it resemble more of a bread than a cake.

Evans is particularly interested in how election cakes varied in size over time as America itself was changing. The original 17th-century election cakes were enormous—big enough to sustain large numbers of male voters. As America gained its independence and became more industrialized and urban, the cakes became smaller, resembling more of a sweet loaf. This can be attributed to the cake being baked domestically rather than communally and the influx of different ethnic groups who preferred cooking by stove rather than by hearth.

The Winterthur Library collection is rich in materials related to this dessert, including recipe books and other items focused on the history of American foodways. “The material in the Downs Collection has given me unique insight into the history of the election cake, and although researching cake sounds a tad decadent, it’s about more than just cake, it’s about understanding what a changing recipe says about a changing American society,” notes Evans.

H. N. Pilsbury’s Election Cake recipe, 1847. Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Doc. 275

H. N. Pilsbury’s Election Cake recipe, 1847. Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Doc. 275

Lydia Grofton Jarvis’s Election Cake recipe, ca. 1840. Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Doc. 828.

Lydia Grofton Jarvis’s Election Cake recipe, ca. 1840. Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera, Doc. 828.

Although the cake disappeared from popular memory around the middle of the 20th century, this election cycle has seen a resurgence in the tradition. Bakeries across the country are baking the treat again, and just last week Evans was interviewed by the BBC in the UK to provide insight into this historical recipe.

The riches of the Joseph Downs Collection of Manuscripts and Printed Ephemera are not limited to the written word—the librarians have taken a keen interest in the subject and have turned into bakers this election season to help Evans with his research. “Bryce became interested in election cake, and we were discussing how unusual it is because the recipes called for yeast, which you would use with bread not cake,” Downs Librarian Laura Parrish noted. “I checked a couple of cookbooks I had at home and found a modern recipe, so I decided I would make an election cake. His interest became my interest.”

Laura Parrish's delicious Election Cake

Laura Parrish’s delicious Election Cake

It is this creative, supportive, and dynamic environment that makes the Research Fellowship Program at Winterthur a special and integral part of the institution. Fellows do not merely pore over dusty manuscripts by themselves in the library but are immersed into a community that cares deeply about material culture research. Staff and fellows brainstorm, collaborate, and even bake in order to better understand the deliciousness of the American past—even if it means getting flour all over the kitchen!

If you are interested in coming to Winterthur to research the sweet treats of America’s past or to explore our rich collections for materials related to other aspects of American history, please come and join our community by applying to the Research Fellowship Program. For more information on the program, view our brochure.

Applications due January 15, 2017

Post by Thomas Guiler, Manager and Instructor, Academic Programs, Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library

 

Posted in Academic Programs, Cooking, culinary, Ephemera, Library, museum collection, Students & Alumni, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment


Decking the Dollhouse Halls in August

Our recent blog posts have chronicled the dollhouse donated to Winterthur, with the most recent posts detailing the cleaning and conservation treatments. After completing those intricate tasks and treatments, it was time to begin the re-installation process. This meant using photographs showing the way the dollhouse was last assembled by its creator, Nancy McDaniel. We wanted to arrange the miniatures in a manner true to Nancy’s vision.

Every room had an average of 50 miniatures, and as we secured each item into place, we documented it on a Canon T4i camera. These videos allow a viewer to enjoy each room as it comes together piece by piece. Altogether 18 stop-motion videos were made, one for each room.

The only thing these videos are missing is the installation of Christmas, Nancy’s favorite time of year. She was an enthusiastic gift giver throughout the entire year, but Christmas was the season of giving. We know she ran a number of charities and fundraisers; most notable among them was her community’s Festival of Trees. And of course, it was Nancy who saw to it that garlands and wreaths draped her town during the holiday season. So it should come as no surprise to learn that dozens of miniature Christmas decorations accompanied the dollhouse as well. Unfortunately, the photographs we referenced to re-install the dollhouse did not include pictures of the house decorated for Christmas. So what to do? How would we deck the halls without all the necessary information?

First, we reached out to Nancy’s friends and family. Perhaps they would remember. Through her friends and family, we learned the ways in which Nancy decorated her own home. To start, there were seven Christmas trees, one of which was decorated entirely with unique silver ornaments, while another was covered in 474 needlepointed ornaments made by Nancy herself. Nutcrackers stood guard in almost every room, and her handmade crèche greeted visitors near the front door.

After spending nine-and-a-half weeks tending to her dollhouse and talking to her friends and family, we felt like we had gotten to know Nancy a little. So, equipped with what we had learned about her own home, our own studies of Nancy’s attention to color and arrangement in the rest of the dollhouse, and just a little dash of good old-fashioned fun, we installed the delightful Christmas decorations. In total, we used 45 of the 116 miniature wreaths and three Christmas trees as well as dozens of other irresistibly festive details. To fully appreciate the scale of Nancy’s achievement, you will have to visit the dollhouse and see it decked out for the holidays during Yuletide at Winterthur.

dollhouse 2

Post by Karissa Muratore and Amanda Kasman, University of Delaware Art Conservation undergraduates who completed a summer internship at Winterthur Museum preparing  the dollhouse for display.

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Sticking Around

The use of harmful adhesives in historic dollhouses is controversial as it poses risks to museum objects’ longevity. It is for this reason that a previous post on the dollhouse at Winterthur explained in depth the method we developed to avoid the use of any adhesives. However, many miniatures other than wall décor required innovative securing methods. To be clear, we could have chosen the easy way out, a plan that would have saved us days, even weeks, in our tight schedule, producing a final result that would have looked almost exactly the same. We could have secured everything with large amounts of museum wax. From its name, you may be able to tell that it is commonly used in museums and is widely trusted to hold objects in place in the event of vibrations, even earthquakes. But that wasn’t good enough for the dollhouse. Why you may ask?

First, the majority of our time has been spent cleaning excess wax off of the miniatures and out of the dollhouse. Excess wax isn’t necessarily dangerous, but it does provide a conveniently sticky surface for dust and grime to attach to and build up on over time. Second, as we learned from our own experience, wax loses its effectiveness on small surface areas. This means if the smallest miniatures in the dollhouse had been secured with wax, they could potentially break loose and become lost quite easily. This would be tragic as our smallest miniatures are also some of our most valuable. The tiny sterling silver flatware in the dining room posed the largest challenge. The pieces are so tiny, it was often easier to handle the 48 pieces of miniature silver, including salad and entrée forks, soup and dessert spoons, knives, and even napkin rings with tweezers rather than gloved fingers.

Silver fork before polishing, photo, Evan Krape / University of Delaware

Silver fork before polishing, photo, Evan Krape / University of Delaware

So how did we secure all these miniature pieces? We made placemats! Even though we were technically adding an unoriginal element to the house, we came to the conclusion that sewing the silver pieces in place would be significantly better for both the silver itself and the table than using a sticky adhesive or wax. Using one of the many handkerchiefs among the extraneous items donated with the dollhouse, we fashioned eight placemats from its lace trimming. In a way, we were following  the lead of Nancy (the original dollhouse owner) because, as we later discovered, she had used a similar handkerchief as a bed sheet in the girl’s bedroom. After 18 hours, the flatware was sewed to placemats, and the placemats were sewn to each other, all with a thin, hardly visible polyester thread. Those teeny tiny spoons are not going anywhere now.

picture 2

Another issue with wax is the way it embeds itself into textiles. Among the miniature textiles in the dollhouse, the most notable are the 17 needlepoint rugs made by Nancy herself. Apparently she was never without a needlepoint project in her hands. We recently learned that she had a regimen of creating one rug each winter for her beloved dollhouse, often consulting with friends over patterns and color choices. Unfortunately, these rugs slide when the dollhouse is moved, endangering the numerous pieces of miniature furniture resting on them. Preventing movement of the rugs during the migration from storage out into the stair hall for its display during Yuletide at Winterthur was of particular importance. Wax would certainly have solved this, but we wanted to create a barrier between the textile and wax. Our solution was to acquire 68, super-thin earth magnets, four for each rug, measuring ¼” x ¼”  x 1/32″  thick. Two of these magnets were sewn under the front two corners of each rug. The magnets’ counterparts were then waxed to the floor. This solution, in addition to avoiding direct contact between wax and textile, carried with it the benefit that the rugs can be easily removed from the rooms. We would only need to release the magnets in the front and slide the rug out. Additionally, when we want to put the rug back in the same location as before, it simply snaps into place.

picture 3

It is our hope that the methods we developed to secure these and other items in the dollhouse are equally safe and subtle. We can’t wait for the unveiling of the dollhouse on November 19, when we hope the public will be as captivated by this dollhouse as we are.

Post by Karissa Muratore and Amanda Kasman, University of Delaware Art Conservation undergraduates who completed a summer internship at Winterthur Museum preparing  the dollhouse for display.

The unveiling of this fabulous 18-room dollhouse, charmingly decorated for the holidays, coincides with the opening of this year’s Yuletide at Winterthur on November 19!

[Sources for link to tiny magnets]

K&J Magnets

https://www.kjmagnetics.com/proddetail.asp?prod=B4201

https://www.kjmagnetics.com/blog.asp?p=pacemaker-safety

 

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Let There Be (Just Enough) Light!

Exterior of Winterthur with its many windows.

Exterior of Winterthur with its many windows.

The eternal dilemma for all museums revolves around light: we need light to see our collections, but light causes damage that eventually leads to objects’ destruction. Mitigating light exposure can help extend the lifespan of objects on display and is incredibly important to the longevity of the collection. Numerous publications have been written about the damage caused by light and to set guidelines for the quantity of light museum objects should receive. Monitoring light in an historic house museum such as Winterthur creates some interesting challenges. First, the house is enormous. It has 9 floors, 175 rooms, and more than 400 windows; that is a lot of space and means for light to enter the collection.

Fading present on the back of an upholstered chair in the Blue Room.

Fading present on the back of an upholstered chair in the Blue Room.

The Bartrand Room on the third floor is actually located below ground. Lights have been placed behind the blinds to give the illusion of artificial light.

The Bartrand Room on the third floor is actually located below ground. Lights have been placed behind the blinds to give the illusion of artificial light.

Sunlight on the upholstery in Blackwell Parlor on the 4th floor

Sunlight on the upholstery in Blackwell Parlor on the 4th floor

Second, the rooms are located both above and below ground level. This means that both daylight and artificial light have an impact on the rooms. Additionally, the rooms vary in shape and size, meaning light will impact them all in different ways depending on the direction they face, the number of windows they have, and how the lighting system is set. Lastly, the majority of the Winterthur collection is permanently displayed. Other institutions display a very small portion of their collection, rotating out objects to allow them to “rest” in darker storage areas to give them a break from exhibition lighting. Winterthur aims to present the rooms as they were when Henry Francis du Pont designed them, leaving very little room for the rotation of objects.

So how does the Conservation Preventive Team monitor light, and how do we know what those numbers mean? Strategically placed throughout the museum are digital loggers that electronically track light exposure. The data is downloaded every few weeks, processed, and compared to the guidelines for different material sensitivities. We then use those totals to make recommendations for how to better improve lighting conditions within the museum to help protect our valuable collection.Most recently, Winterthur conducted a four-year study of light in the collection, beginning in 2012 before the installation of the new storm windows and continuing through August 2016, a full year after the new windows had been installed. One of my major projects was to analyze the data and assess the impact of the window replacement.

Light sensor discretely located on the orrery in Memorial Library

Light sensor discretely located on the orrery in Memorial Library

Replacing the storm windows had a significant impact on the light levels within the collection. As you can see in the image above, high peaks of light have been reduced by almost 90% of what they were prior to the installation. Less light coming in means less damage to the objects and allows our collection to continue to be on view for visitors to enjoy. We’ll continue to collect data and monitor more spaces throughout the collection to ensure we are creating an environment that is safe for our objects. To learn more about preventative conservation, meet members of the preventative team, and gain practical advice for the objects you own at home, consider signing up for the Conservation Clinic, now features a collections care table.

Light graph comparing data from April/March 2013 (before installation on the left) to April/March 2016 (after installation on the right) from the Pennsylvania German Bedroom

Light graph comparing data from April/March 2013 (before installation on the left) to April/March 2016 (after installation on the right) from the Pennsylvania German Bedroom

For more information on museum lighting, visit these links: http://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/Light and http://canada.pch.gc.ca/eng/1444925073140.

Post by Liz Peirce, 2015–16 Samuel H. Kress Fellow in Conservation at Winterthur

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Why So Sensitive?

If you read the Winterthur Blog about a year ago, you may have stumbled across the post A Brittle Beauty and discovered that the treatment of Winterthur’s Chinese export lacquer has been part of an ongoing IMLS grant that began back in 2012. Shortly after that posting, I became immersed in the world of Chinese export lacquer, its beauty, and its challenges. When I began my fellowship at the end of September 2015, my fellow furniture conservators had spent the last two years being trained on the conservation of lacquer. Aiming to expose me to as many aspects of lacquer treatment as possible, they had set aside a six-panel lacquer screen as my main project. This piece was meant to be an easy treatment scheduled to be completed in a few months.

 An overall image of the screen before treatment, with a detail of the lifting, cracking, and loss along one panel’s edge. Left: photo courtesy of Gilles Auffret. Right: photo courtesy of Jim Schneck.

An overall image of the screen before treatment, with a detail of the lifting, cracking, and loss along one panel’s edge. Left: photo courtesy of Gilles Auffret. Right: photo courtesy of Jim Schneck.

One of the things that I love about the field of art conservation is that there is always, always, an “easy” object out there just waiting to challenge you, to make you rethink your treatment plan, and to make you grow as a conservator. I should have known from the beginning that this screen would be that piece. Even the butterfly in the decoration seemed cautious.

Wary butterfly from the screen 2004.30.2. Clearly he knew something I didn't about how less than straightforward this treatment would be.

Wary butterfly from the screen 2004.30.2. Clearly he knew something I didn’t about how less than straightforward this treatment would be.

The standard consolidation technique that we had used on other objects in the collection proved to be too risky for my screen. Other objects in the collection had been varnished with a natural resin at some point in their history to resaturate the degraded lacquer surface (a common historical practice that causes its own set of conservation problems). This varnish coating effectively protected the lacquer surface from excess adhesive during consolidation. My screen was never coated and had no barrier between the consolidating adhesive and the lacquer surface, making staining a very real and very scary, risk. Combine that with a surface that is highly sensitive to almost every solvent that had been used in lacquer treatments at Winterthur so far, and the potential for irreversible damage seemed inevitable.

Injecting adhesive below a lifted crack. Photo courtesy CRAFT intern Zhao Bo

Injecting adhesive below a lifted crack. Photo courtesy CRAFT intern Zhao Bo

Fortunately, with the guidance of experts in both lacquer conservation and conservation science, we were able to design a technique that would help protect the surface while still allowing consolidation to occur. I applied a barrier layer of a solvent that does not stain the surface, has a long evaporation time, and is of a different polarity to the adhesive. This means that any glue that may come out during the glue up will sit on top of the solvent surface rather than be wicked onto the lacquer (think of a drop of water on oil). Unlike a varnish or resin coating, this barrier layer evaporated on its own rather than needing to be removed. I also switched the adhesive I was using to one that was more fluid, which allowed me to use a thinner needle and have more control over injection.

Images of the lifted area before (top left), with the barrier layer (top right), and after consolidation (bottom left detail, bottom right overall)

Images of the lifted area before (top left), with the barrier layer (top right), and after consolidation (bottom left detail, bottom right overall)

As you can see from the images, the barrier layer was extremely successful! Flakes could be laid down successfully without damaging the lacquer surface. While this treatment has taken a few months longer than originally predicted, knowing that screen is more stable and at less risk for losing flakes has been incredibly rewarding. I’ve learned many new techniques just working on this one material over the past year, and I am looking forward to applying that knowledge towards my future endeavors.

Post by Liz Peirce, 2015-16 Samuel H. Kress Fellow in Conservation at Winterthur

Posted in Academic Programs, antiques, Art Conservation, Behind-the-Scenes, Conservation, Decorative Arts, museum collection, Students & Alumni, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment


My Favorite Things

Take a peek inside the favorite things of those who work at Winterthur. Linda Eaton, John L. & Marjorie P. McGraw Director of Collections & Senior Curator of Textiles, and Tom Savage, Director of Museum Affairs, each share one of their favorite objects from the collection.

 

For further information on needlework objects, attend our conference, Embroidery: The Language of Art, October 14-15, 2016.

Posted in antiques, art collections, Behind-the-Scenes, Conferences, Decorative Arts, museum collection, Textiles, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment