What’s On Your Thanksgiving Table? Why Some Vessel Types No Longer Make the Cut

“Setting the table” in my busy home usually entails some plates, glasses, forks, and – if we’re lucky – paper napkins.  (In a pinch, paper towels do the job just fine.)  Holidays like Thanksgiving, however, call for a little more fanfare on the table.  I get out the large platter for the turkey, the fine china, and the gravy boat.  I set out dinner plates, salad plates, and dessert plates.  I fill food into pretty serving dishes that hardly see the light of day any other time of year.  After the meal has been eaten and the dishes washed, most of these special pieces go back into my cabinets until the next holiday rolls around.

Thanksgiving dinner scene, ca. 1873.  Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Thanksgiving dinner scene, ca. 1873. Public domain image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

I presume that most modern American families are like mine in that they make use of the same basic tableware on a daily basis:  cups, bowls, plates, silverware.  I’m sure that you, the reader, are familiar with these staples of the dinner table.  Despite their less frequent use, you are also undoubtedly familiar with the platter, gravy boat, and dessert plate. What about, on the other hand, the twiffler?

Here in the NMSC archeology lab, I have been busy cataloging a collection of artifacts that includes several twifflers.  The collection was excavated from an upper middle class house site in Lowell, Massachusetts that dates to about 1845, and is full of ca. 1830s and 1840s ceramics.  Almost every provenience contains pearlware and whiteware tablewares and teawares, with decorative techniques ranging from transfer-printed designs, to hand-painted floral motifs, to cabled, marbled, and dendritic slipped designs.

Array of ca. 1830s-1840s ceramic sherds from NPS archeological collection.  (NMSC photo)

Array of ca. 1830s-1840s ceramic sherds from Lowell National Historical Park archeological collection. (NMSC photo)

The quantity and variety of ceramic vessels excavated from this site illustrate the increasing importance in the early Victorian era of owning and showing off a proper and fashionable array of dishes.  In the mid-nineteenth century, a proper lady owned the right dish for every element of food and drink.  This collection contains several shell-edged and transfer-printed twifflers, which were actually ubiquitous in 19th-century households.  As historian Robert Mazrim notes, “During the early 19th century, English potters manufactured four principal sizes of plates:  table, supper, twiffler, and muffin.”  (p. 162)  Twifflers were a size down from a dinner plate (about 8 to 9 inches in diameter), while muffins were smaller, equivalent to what we might call a side plate.

Transfer-printed pearlware twiffler, ca. 1820.  (Image source:  http://www.premierantiques.co.uk/early-twifflers-and-muffins-56-c.asp)

Transfer-printed pearlware twiffler, ca. 1820. (Image source: http://www.premierantiques.co.uk/early-twifflers-and-muffins-56-c.asp)

It turns out that the archeological record is full of vessel types that are unused and largely unheard of today.  Some were made obsolete by technological improvements, others by changes in the availability and consumption of specific foods, and still others by changes in the way we eat and entertain in our homes.

Perhaps one of the most recognizable obsolete ceramic vessels is the chamber pot.  Although it’s not something that was ever used on the dining table, it’s a great example of a vessel form made unnecessary by technological innovation.  It’s not hard to understand why people stopped using chamber pots.  Once you got indoor plumbing, you didn’t really need your chamber pot anymore.  Although they were a lovely shape and were often decorated with colorful – even downright funny!  – designs or images, I venture to guess that most people were eager to abandon them for flushing toilets.

Early 19th-century chamber pot.  (Image source:  http://pegsandtails.wordpress.com/2012/04/01/at-your-convenience/)

Early 19th-century chamber pot. (Image source: http://pegsandtails.wordpress.com/2012/04/01/at-your-convenience/)

The saltcellar is another vessel type that passed out of popular use because of technology.  A saltcellar is a dish used for dispensing salt at the table.  In use since Roman times, saltcellars were made of ceramic, glass, metal, and even wood.  Salt was taken from the cellar with small spoons.  Saltcellars became commonplace by the early 19th century, with pressed glass varieties like the Sandwich Glass example shown here extremely popular from the 1830s on.  To read more about this beautiful, patriotic-themed saltcellar, check out our earlier blog post:  Please Pass the Patriotism!  An America-inspired saltcellar from Petersburg, Virginia.  In the early 20th century, free-flowing salt became available through the addition of anti-caking agents.  Salt shakers became all the rage, and saltcellars disappeared from our tables.

Left: Fragment of pressed glass saltcellar with eagle motif from archeological collection at Petersburg National Battlefield. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC. Right: example of complete saltcellar. (Image source: http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/17576980_ee-3b-eagle-and-shield-pressed-salt)

Left: Fragment of pressed glass saltcellar with eagle motif from archeological collection at Petersburg National Battlefield. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC. Right: example of complete saltcellar. (Image source: http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/17576980_ee-3b-eagle-and-shield-pressed-salt)

 

Pressed glass celery vase, Boston and Sandwich Glass Co., ca. 1827-1835.  Metropolitan Museum of Art.  (Image source:  http://www.metmuseum.org/)

Pressed glass celery vase, Boston and Sandwich Glass Co., ca. 1827-1835. Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Image source: http://www.metmuseum.org/)

Many 19th-century pressed or cut glass services included a celery vase.  Although you may not think much of celery today, in the 19th century, it was a delicacy.  Growing celery was extremely labor-intensive, and celery was therefore expensive and not widely available.  As illustrated in this late 19th-century advertisement for tomato soup, when celery was purchased, it was not chopped into a recipe, but rather set on the table in a fancy vase for all to see.  By the late 19th century, some glass and ceramic sets included an oblong celery dish instead of a vase.  As the 20th century progressed, improvements in agriculture and faster and easier transportation of produce allowed for the wider consumption of celery.  What was once a delicacy proudly displayed for dinner guests has become perhaps one of the most underappreciated items in the supermarket produce aisle.

Late 19th-century advertisement showing use of celery vase on dining table.  (Image source:  http://www.patternglass.com/Store/CeleryVase/index.htm)

Late 19th-century advertisement showing use of celery vase on dining table. Image source: http://www.patternglass.com/Store/CeleryVase/index.htm

These are only a few examples of vessel types that history has made largely obsolete. Others might include the porringer, the slop bowl, and the nappy.  This Thanksgiving, consider treating your guests to a little piece of history.  Instead of a vase of fresh flowers in the center of your table, why not a vase of fresh celery?  Put away your saltshaker and invite your family and friends to spoon some salt out of a saltcellar.  (I acknowledge that the chamber pot may be pushing it.)  However you decide to dress your table this Thanksgiving, we at NMSC wish you a very happy one!

References:

Husfloen, Kyle.  Collector’s Guide to American Pressed Glass 1825-1915.  Radnor, PA:  Wallace-Homestead Book Company, 1992.

Mazrim, Robert.  The Sangamo Frontier.  Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 2007.

http://athomeinthenineteenthcentury.blogspot.com/2012/07/celery-at-dining-table.html

http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/519902/saltcellar

http://www.nytimes.com/1997/07/10/garden/celery-vase-an-antique-cooler-revived.html

http://www.premierantiques.co.uk/early-twifflers-and-muffins-56-c.asp

Posted in A bit of History, Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Thank you, Meredith!

Over the past six months, NMSC has been privileged to have two amazing seasonal employees on staff in the archeology lab.  It is with heavy hearts that we wish them well as their terms draw to a close.  Here, one of these employees, Meredith Luze, reflects upon her time at NMSC.  Meredith, a graduate student at U Mass Boston, is in the process of finishing her master’s thesis on living history museums’ use of archeological collections.  Meredith, we cannot thank you enough for all of your hard work and good cheer!

[The Following Post Written by Meredith Luze]

Prior to seeing an advertisement for the museum technician position at the Northeast Museum Services Center, I had no knowledge of the NMSC’s existence, let alone the role it plays in caring for artifacts at national parks from around the Northeast region. The job sounded right up my alley with my previous experience working with both archeological and museum collections, so I applied and spent several anxious weeks waiting to see if the interest was mutual. Thankfully the waiting ended with an interview and a job offer, which I could not have been more thrilled to accept.

Shortly after arriving at the NMSC, I learned that I was going to be cataloging artifacts from two rather different sites at two national parks, Petersburg National Battlefield (PETE) and Lowell National Historical Park (LOWE).  As I jumped into using the National Park Service’s complex cataloging system, the rest of the NMSC’s archeology staff patiently answered my questions and confusion as I learned proper NPS cataloging terminology and object ordering. I had not expected artifact cataloging, something I had extensive experience doing elsewhere, to require so much training! But learn the system I did, first sorting and cataloging artifacts from a site at PETE that had suffered varying levels of heat alteration from a historic warehouse fire.

Meredith and NMSC's Alicia Paresi sorting burned ceramics from the Waterfront collection at PETE.  (NMSC photo)

Meredith and NMSC’s Alicia Paresi sort burned ceramics from an archeological collection at PETE. (NMSC photo)

While I now have little desire to see any more sherds of burned redware, I enjoyed finding unique pieces in the PETE collection, including a mysterious metal object that after a little researching turned out to be an umbrella tip. My favorite artifacts from the collection were a set of dominoes, including a miniature domino, which had shattered and turned into a fun puzzle to reassemble.

Domino and umbrella tip from Waterfront collection.  (Photos by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

Domino and umbrella tip from PETE collection. (Photos by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

After the PETE collection had been safely returned to the park, we immediately began work on the LOWE collection from the Boott Mill Boarding House, which NMSC staff had painstakingly sorted and prepared for cataloging earlier in the fiscal year. It was a huge thrill to work with a collection I had long heard about and discussed, and the collection taught me a far more about glass forms and types than I ever knew was possible. I was even able to join the NMSC on several trips to the Boott Mill for collections pick-ups, artifact conservation, and a memorable few days screening soil samples. Outside of the lab, I had the opportunity to visit Adams National Historical Park and Minute Man National Historical Park with other NMSC staff, both of which were new additions to my list of visited national parks. I also had the privilege of working with African Burial Ground National Monument’s collection, another collection I studied extensively in my undergraduate and graduate classes and was excited to work with in person.

Meredith hard at work screening soil samples from Cape Cod National Seashore.  (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

Meredith hard at work screening soil samples from Cape Cod National Seashore. (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

 

I could not have asked for better colleagues than I found at the NMSC. They were all unfailingly encouraging and supportive as I attempted to balance working full-time with completing my master’s thesis, alternately sharing their own thesis stories and motivating me with more candy than adults have any business eating. I benefited enormously from their extensive material culture knowledge as well as their interesting tastes in podcasts like Welcome to Nightvale, which was a source of endless entertainment while cataloging. At the NMSC I gained a deeper appreciation for those archeologists who routinely work with aging archeological collections and are tasked with making sense of excavation and cataloging notes decades later. After six months with the NMSC, I have a better understanding of the enormity of what the National Park Service is tasked with in caring for its invaluable collections and how collaboration and cooperation between parks makes accomplishing this task possible.

I am very glad that I now not only know about the NMSC but have been able to work there cataloging several memorable collections, screening old soil samples, and assisting with collection returns. The end of my term is a bittersweet goodbye to the NMSC, but I hope to work with the staff here again in the future.

Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

NMSC photo.

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Happy New (Fiscal) Year from the NMSC Archeology Lab!

September is upon us.  Kids are back in school, leaves are starting to change, pumpkin spice has returned as the flavor of choice for many coffee drinkers and muffin fans.  For the National Park Service, September also means the close of the fiscal year.  As the year draws to a close, we here in the NMSC archeology lab wrap up the projects we have been working on since last fall and prepare for the start of a new year.

Fall at Longfellow House - Washington's Headquarters NHS (photo courtesy of NPS Digital Image Archives)

Fall at Longfellow House – Washington’s Headquarters NHS (photo courtesy of NPS Digital Image Archives)

We often post about interesting artifacts we come across while processing archeological collections.  This time, we thought we might offer our readers a look into the process of… well, processing.  Field work – digging – is one part of archeology.  The lab work that follows is equally important and transforms bags of ceramics, glass, metal, and bone into a coherent collection that can be accessed and understood by park staff and public researchers.  Have you ever wondered what goes on in an archeology lab?  If so, this post is for you!

Before we begin work on a park’s archeology collection, NMSC staff meets with park staff to discuss the project in detail and survey the materials slated for processing.  We work with park historians, curators, archeologists, and archivists to ensure that we understand the scope of the collection, and also to ensure that we have all components of the collection – including associated documentation like site maps and field notes – before we begin processing.  Field notes and other documentation produced during an excavation are integral parts of an archeological collection, and NPS protocol mandates that they are processed with the related artifacts.

NMSC archeologist conferring with park staff during collection pickup.  (NMSC photo)

NMSC archeologist conferring with park staff prior to processing. (NMSC photo)

Our first step in processing a collection is always a thorough examination of the site maps, field notes, and other documentation associated with the excavation in question.  These materials provide us with the information we need to properly organize the collection. According to NPS standards for processing, archeological collections must be organized, if at all possible, by provenience (location within a site).  Context is key to understanding the artifacts from a site and how they relate to each other and the history of the site.  Once a collection has been properly cataloged, the information it contains can be organized in any way that suits a particular research query.  Organization for the sake of cataloging, however, should be by provenience.  We use associated documentation to create a list of proveniences, then move on to a systematic survey of the artifacts themselves before we begin to organize the collection.

If we do not have field notes, sometimes we can obtain provenience information from original field bags.  Other times, however, the task of discerning provenience can be tricky. The artifacts, for example, may already have been processed by a different lab’s protocol, and it is up to us to decode their numbering or ordering system.  Or, the collection may have been organized by material type for research purposes, and we are tasked with rearranging the artifacts by provenience.

Sorting an archeological collection by provenience is a time-consuming, painstaking, and essential process.  In most collections, there are several test units represented, and several strata or layers represented within each unit.  Every single artifact must be checked and added to the appropriate sorting bin or tray.

Sorting by provenience in progress.  (NMSC photo)

Sorting by provenience in progress. (NMSC photo)

Once a collection has been surveyed and organized and a provenience list has been created, artifacts are washed.  Even collections that were washed following excavation are often in need of additional cleaning, especially if they have been subject to inadequate storage conditions.

Washing archeological artifacts.  (NMSC photo)

Washing archeological artifacts. (NMSC photo)

Once we have an organized, clean collection of artifacts, the cataloging begins.  When we catalog an artifact, we identify its type, function, and decorative techniques.   Archeological artifacts are often only fragments of an object, and have often deteriorated beyond the point of immediate recognition.  The cataloging process allows us to take artifacts whose form or function may not be universally apparent, and assign them identification and historical context.  Cataloging allows these artifacts to have tangible, comprehensible classifications that everyone can understand.

Presentation slide illustrating artifacts placed in context.  (NMSC image)

Presentation slide illustrating artifacts placed in context. (NMSC image)

We create digital catalog records for each artifact, which are added to the park’s collections database once processing has been completed.  Cataloging allows for proper documentation of and accountability for archeological artifacts, and allows park staff and other researchers to search the collections database for different types of artifacts.

Sometimes cataloging is fairly straightforward.  Other times, we come across artifacts that require some extra research!  A type of glaze we’ve never seen before, a vessel shape we’re unfamiliar with, a curious cast iron object that we finally identify in a reference book …these artifacts constitute one of the most rewarding aspects of lab work.  We are constantly seeing new things and learning more about the people represented by these small, often fragmentary – but very important – examples of material culture.  Museum collections abound with historic objects that belonged to historical figures, or that represent the finest examples of material culture.  Archeology, on the other hand, has the potential to show us what everyday life was like.  By studying the common items that people used on a daily basis and then discarded, we can gain invaluable insight into our past.

NMSC archeologists contemplating artifacts during cataloging.  (NMSC photo)

NMSC archeologists contemplating artifacts during cataloging. (NMSC photo)

An essential component of the cataloging process is housing – or storing – the artifacts.  Our goal is to provide the parks we serve with well-organized collections that they can easily access for inventory and research purposes.  We take several steps to ensure that the association between the object and its documentation is well preserved, and that it would be apparent to someone navigating the collection for the first time.  Artifacts are labeled with their catalog numbers, and tags bearing catalog number and provenience information are inserted into each artifact bag.

NMSC archeologist labeling artifacts with catalog numbers.  (NMSC photo)

NMSC archeologist labeling artifacts with catalog numbers. (NMSC photo)

Each catalog record notes a specific location:  a designation for an individual bag within an individual box.  This system makes finding an artifact fairly straightforward and time-efficient.  The storage of artifacts in archival-quality bags, trays, and boxes also ensure the long-term preservation of the collection.

Archeological collection organized into archival-quality bags, trays, and boxes. (NMSC photo)

Archeological collection organized into archival-quality bags, trays, and boxes. (NMSC photo)

After one final spot-check of artifacts, which ensures that we have recorded the correct locations and item counts for each item, a collection is ready to be returned to its park.  It is always a rewarding moment when we are able to provide parks with clean, organized, usable collections.  Archeological artifacts can be powerful teaching tools and can be used to create fascinating and educational exhibits.  They must be properly processed, however, in order for this to happen.  We take pride in the role that we play in this process.  Working with NPS archeology collections is a privilege, and we enjoy our work here even more knowing that we help to bring the past alive for our parks and their visitors.  And so as our fiscal year draws to a close, we are eager to begin anew.  Bring on 2015!

NMSC archeology team.  (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC)

NMSC archeology team. (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC)

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Please Pass the Patriotism! An America-Inspired Saltcellar from Petersburg, Virginia

While vacationing in upstate New York last summer, I was privileged to see a bald eagle soaring above the Erie Canal.  Today, it is a thrill to spot a wild bald eagle, a threatened and celebrated animal in the United States.  The image of the eagle, however, is everywhere:  on the face of the quarter in your pocket, in the logo of a popular clothing brand, and most prominently, as the central feature in the official great seal of the United States of America.

After the Declaration of Independence was signed in 1776, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to design a national seal for the United States.  After six years of disagreements about the design, an official seal was finally adopted in 1782 that featured a bald eagle holding thirteen arrows in one talon and an olive branch in the other.  Despite Benjamin Franklin’s preference for the turkey – he called the eagle a “bird of bad moral character” and argued that the turkey’s courage better matched the American spirit – the bald eagle became a national symbol second only to Old Glory.  (An excerpt from Benjamin Franklin’s letter to his daughter in which he expresses his opinion on the eagle and the turkey can be found in this article by Jimmy Stamp.)

Why the bald eagle?  Through their association with the Greek god Zeus and the Roman god Jupiter, eagles have historically denoted authority.  Their imposing wingspan, longevity, and strength lend eagles an air of power, and their solitary lifestyle and tendency to nest in tall treetops or on clifftops bespeak independence and self-sufficiency.  Also, early Americans saw the predatory nature of the eagle as a fitting representation of America’s rising military and economic power.  Finally, one major reason for the selection of the bald eagle as a symbol for America is the fact that, as Elizabeth Atwood Lawrence states in her article Symbol of a Nation:  the Bald Eagle in American Culture, “of the fifty-eight species of eagles worldwide, the bald eagle is the only one virtually unique to North America.”

Bald eagle in flight, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Bald eagle in flight, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1783, the Treaty of Paris recognized the United States as a sovereign nation.  From this point on, American decorative arts proudly displayed the bald eagle as a symbol of their hard-earned freedom.  Eagles are featured prominently in early 19th-century American furniture, artwork, glass, and ceramics.

Girandole with eagle finial, in collection at Metropolitan Museum of Art.  Image source: http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1974.363.1

Girandole with eagle finial, ca. 1817, in collection at Metropolitan Museum of Art.        Image source:   http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/works-of-art/1974.363.1

 

Surprisingly, even the Staffordshire potters in England produced ceramic wares displaying the new nation’s most popular patriotic symbols.  Beautiful examples of such vessels in Winterthur’s collection can be viewed in the book Success to America:  Creamware for the American Market.  The authors note that “eagles, flags, and patriotic slogans were among the most popular emblems to appear on ceramics made specifically for the American market.”  (page 232)

Creamware jug from Winterthur collection.  Produced in England ca. 1793-1795.  Image source:  "Success to America:  Creamware for the American Market."  Page 231.

Creamware jug from Winterthur collection. Produced in England ca. 1793-1795. Image source: “Success to America: Creamware for the American Market” page 231.

Wineglass with engraved American flag motif, ca. 1815-1815.  Winterthur collection.  Image source:  "Glass in Early America."  Page 78.

Wineglass with engraved American flag motif, ca. 1815-1815. Winterthur collection. Image source: “Glass in Early America” page 78.

Winterthur’s museum collection includes many objects that display the American eagle and other patriotic symbols.  As Arlene Palmer explains in Glass in Early America, Henry Francis du Pont was “drawn to objects that bespoke the nationalistic pride of Americans after the revolutionary war.”  (page 23)  The wineglass displayed at right is a perfect example.

 

The majestic eagle that perches atop the Custom House at Salem Maritime National Historic Site (SAMA) is a replica of the original wooden eagle that was carved in 1826 by Salem craftsman Joseph True.  The original eagle was conserved in 2002 and is now displayed on the second floor of the Custom House.  Although the eagle’s current appearance reflects the gilding that was applied in the 1870s, she was initially painted as a bald eagle, with a brown body and white head.  See this State of the Park Report for more information on SAMA’s eagle and its conservation.

 

The SAMA carved eagle on display on the second floor of the Custom House.  Image source:  http://www.nps.gov/stateoftheparks/sama/culturalresources/eagle.cfm

The SAMA carved eagle on display on the second floor of the Custom House. Image source: http://www.nps.gov/stateoftheparks/sama/culturalresources/eagle.cfm

 

Part of a glass saltcellar with an eagle motif was excavated from the kitchen at Appomattox Manor, City Point, Virginia (a unit of Petersburg National Battlefield).  Saltcellars, used for holding and dispensing salt, have been in use since Roman times and only passed out of fashion in the first half of the 20th century with the advent of free-flowing salt and salt shakers.  While researching this piece during cataloging recently, NMSC determined that the saltcellar was produced by the Sandwich Glass Company in the first half of the 19th century.  The New York Historical Society’s museum collection includes a similar saltcellar, which their website dates to ca. 1830-1840.

Left:  Fragment of pressed glass saltcellar with eagle motif from archeological collection at Petersburg National Battlefield.  Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.  Right:  example of complete saltcellar.  Image source:  http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/17576980_ee-3b-eagle-and-shield-pressed-salt

Left: Fragment of pressed glass saltcellar with eagle motif from archeological collection at Petersburg National Battlefield. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC. Right: example of complete saltcellar. Image source: http://www.liveauctioneers.com/item/17576980_ee-3b-eagle-and-shield-pressed-salt

What pieces reflecting American pride and patriotism do you have in your museum collection? We’d love to hear from you!   And of course, Happy Independence Day from us here at the the Northeast Museum Services Center!

References:

Lawrence, E.A. “Symbol of a Nation: The Bald Eagle in American Culture.” Journal of American Culture13 (1990), pp. 63–69.

Liebster, Amy. “Eagles After the American Revolution”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/eagl/hd_eagl.htm (June 2012)

Palmer, Arlene.  Glass in Early America.  Winterthur Museum, 1993.

Stamp, Jimmy.  American Myths:  Benjamin Franklin’s Turkey and the Presidential Seal. Smithsonian.com, January 25, 2013.  http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/american-myths-benjamin-franklins-turkey-and-the-presidential-seal-6623414/?no-ist

Teitelman, S. Robert, Patricia A. Halfpenny, and Ronald W. Fuchs II.  Success to America:  Creamware for the American Market.  Woodbridge, Suffolk:  Antique Collectors Club, 2010.

http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/bald_eagle/lifehistory

http://www.baldeagleinfo.com

http://www.smithsonianmag.com/arts-culture/american-myths-benjamin-franklins-turkey-and-the-presidential-seal-6623414/?no-ist

http://www.wikipedia.com

 

 

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Glimpses of the History of Preservation: Resource Management Records and Louise du Pont Crowninshield at Salem Maritime National Historic Site

NMSC recently completed processing resource management records from Salem Maritime National Historic Site (SAMA).  Here, NMSC archivist Margaret Welch discusses how these records reveal one woman’s efforts toward SAMA’s early preservation and interpretation.

NMSC recently completed cataloging the early resource management records of Salem Maritime National Historic Site (SAMA).  SAMA keeps these records to determine how best to preserve and maintain the park’s cultural and natural resources in the present and for the future based on their past management.  In addition to these internal uses by NPS employees and contractors, park resource management records may hold evidence of historical events and trends of interest beyond the NPS.

These SAMA records, in documenting the role of Louise du Pont Crowninshield (1877-1958) in the development of the site, highlight the abilities and indeed the character of this major figure in historic preservation in America.  Crowninshield was well known to National Park Service officials for her aid in furnishing Wakefield, the reconstruction of George Washington’s birthplace, which the NPS took over in the early 1930s.  The sister of Henry Francis du Pont, who at the time was collecting American furniture and assembling the period rooms in what would become the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, was already appreciated for her own knowledge of antiques and furnishings.  She, approving of the plan for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities to give the Derby House to the Park Service, helped to pay off the building’s mortgage so that it could be donated in 1938.

Crowninshield furnished the interior of the Derby House before its NPS acquisition with furniture and collectibles from Derby family descendants as well as period items loaned from the local museums.  Her ability to locate family heirlooms was based on her knowledge of her husband’s Derby family ancestors; one suspects that she exercised formidable powers of persuasion on the owners to obtain the items.

Interior of Derby House, SAMA>  (Photo courtesy of Salem Maritime National Historic Site.)

Interior of Derby House, SAMA,ca. 1950s. (Photo courtesy of Salem Maritime National Historic Site.)

Evidently for Crowninshield, ownership by the persons living in the house or by their relatives was a key in determining furnishings in a period room.  However, some considered other priorities including adherence to an established date.  In a 28 May 1939 letter to the Superintendent of SAMA — refreshing in its candor amidst bureaucratic correspondence – William Sumner Appleton, founder of SPNEA and another historic preservation leader, confided:

Mr. Hipkiss [Edwin J. Hipkiss, curator at Boston Museum of Fine Arts] is of the opinion that you are very fortunate to have the assistance of Mrs. Crowninshield [for furnishing the Derby House] but we both feel that the things she has sent down are, in greater part, too old for the house.  That is just between you and me and I wouldn’t tell her that comes from me.  When I see her next, I shall take occasion to tell her so and may perhaps drop her a letter in which I shall raise the point in a friendly way (Resource Management Records, BX 2, Fldr 5.)

As she persuaded others, Crowninshield herself was to be persuaded; unspoken is the issue that, because she volunteered her services and donated money, coldly pointing out factual errors was not an option.

Her brother Henry’s attention to detail is legendary, but Crowninshield also saw the “small stuff.”  After one October 1943 visit, she wrote the following complaint to the NPS Director about failing paint on the Derby House fence:

The outside paint which Mr. Small [SAMA Superintendent] had put on the fence and gates must have been very poor because it is all chipped off … It seems funny that the Government should have furnished poor quality paint.

(Wartime exigencies seemed not a problem to her.)  The regional director asked the SAMA superintendent to fix the issue, noting that “Mrs. Crowninshield was deeply interested in promoting the welfare of the Salem Maritime National Historic Site” (RMR Box 7, Fldr 19).

Fellow historic preservationists visited the new site, the first national historic site in the NPS system, drawn in part by Crowninshield’s participation.  According to the visitor book, on 6 September 1935, the Metropolitan Museum of Art curator and furniture expert Joseph Downs came.  Bertram Little and Nina Fletcher Little, the noted antiques collectors and scholars, visited several times.  Rodney Sharp, who restored historic houses in Odessa, Delaware, came in August 1942.  Will S. Taylor from the Brown University Department of Art wished to bring his American architecture students to visit the restoration work in April 1939.

Visitors on tour in the Derby House, SAMA, ca. 1950s.  (Photo courtesy of Salem Maritime National Historic Site.)

Visitors on tour in the Derby House, SAMA, ca. 1950s. (Photo courtesy of Salem Maritime National Historic Site.)

Louisa Crowninshield went on to participate in other ventures including the National Trust for Historical Preservation, but she remained constant to SAMA throughout the years.  NPS officials were careful to consult her before the formation of the Salem Maritime Historical Association, and she became the Association’s first president.  She served in that capacity until her death.

 

For additional reading:

Seth C. Bruggeman, Here, George Washington Was Born: Memory, Material Culture, and the Public History of a National Monument.  Athens: University of Ga. Press, 2008.  Available as Google eBook.  Discussion of Crowninshield’s role in the establishment of George Washington Birthplace National Monument.

Kim Burdick, “Remembering Louise Crowninshield,” from Forum Journal (Spring 2000), Vol. 14, No. 3 available at http://www.preservationnation.org/forum/library/public-articles/remembering-louise-crowninshield.html

Edwin W. Small, “The Derby House,” Old-Time New England.  Available at http://www.historicnewengland.org/preservation/your-older-or-historic-home/articles/pdf374.pdf

SAMA’s first superintendent acknowledges Crowinshield’s help in acquiring objects from Derby Family members, p. 106.

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Enemies of the Curator: Deterioration of Celluloid and Natural Rubber Objects

Here in the NMSC archeology lab, we are pretty familiar with corroded ferrous metal. Nearly all iron deteriorates when exposed to the elements upon burial, so we see a lot of rusty nails. We also fairly frequently add the term “patinated” to catalog records when processing old glass bottle fragments. (Perhaps you have read our 2011 post on glass deterioration. If not, check it out! Enemies of the Curator:  Glass Deterioration)  Recently, we have come across a couple of other material types that lend themselves to severe deterioration over time. Do you have natural rubber or early plastics in your museum collection? Do the images in this post look painfully familiar? Natural rubber and early plastics are subject to inherent and inevitable deterioration, especially in the case of archeologically recovered artifacts that have been subject to the elements for many years. With early identification and intervention, however, it is possible to slow this process and avoid the level of loss pictured here. (Please note: this post does not address cellulose nitrate film, which presents a health hazard and is highly flammable. Please see Conserve O Gram 14/8: Caring for Cellulose Film for more information.)

 

Left:  Remains of hard rubber dressing comb.  Right:  Rubber dressing comb advertised in 1895 Montgomery & Ward catalog.

Left: Remains of hard rubber dressing comb. (NMSC photo.)  Right: Rubber dressing comb advertised in 1895 Montgomery & Ward catalog.

At the time of excavation, the collection of black dust pictured above left was an intact artifact with diagnostic qualities:  a man’s dressing comb with eighteen countable teeth and the printed letters “rubbe” visible on the spine.  The comb probably resembled the one at the above right that was pictured in the 1895 Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog.

Rubber

Native South Americans of the Amazon River basin used natural rubber to waterproof their cloaks and shoes long before Europeans knew about it.  Even once Europeans were introduced to rubber, its use did not catch on because of its tendency to harden in winter, soften in summer, and emit an unpleasant smell.  These issues were resolved when Charles Goodyear developed the process of vulcanization in 1839.  Hardened natural rubber was then used to manufacture buttons, combs, and other items.

Advertisements from the 1897 Sears Roebuck & Co. catalog.

Advertisements from the 1897 Sears Roebuck & Co. catalog.

Ironically, hard rubber combs were often touted as “unbreakable” in contemporary catalogs and advertisements.  So what happened to the “unbreakable” comb whose residue we encountered in the lab?  In a nutshell:  time, air, and humidity.  Natural rubber deteriorates when exposed to oxygen in the air.  Fluctuating levels of relative humidity exacerbate this process.

During and after World War I, Germany and the USSR succeeded in developing synthetic rubber.   The United States joined them in this endeavor during World War II when it was cut off from its suppliers of natural rubber, including India and the Dutch East Indies.  The potential for deterioration in synthetic rubber depends upon its chemical make-up.  Some synthetic rubbers, like neoprene, are highly resistant to oxygen, ozone, oil, heat, flame, and tearing, and preserve better than others.

Celluloid

In addition to the rubber dressing comb (or what is left of it), we have also recently processed a collection of celluloid combs which, although not quite reduced to dust, exhibit signs of severe deterioration due to time and inadequate storage conditions.  Hard rubber had a plain, dull, black finish and was suited for utilitarian use.  Celluloid, developed in the 1860s, imitated beautiful and expensive natural materials like ivory, shell, horn, and tortoise shell, and became a common material for decorative combs.

Assortment of decorative celluloid hair combs offered in the 1895 Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog.

Assortment of decorative celluloid hair combs offered in the 1895 Montgomery Ward & Co. catalog.

The combs pictured below are examples of side combs and back combs that were used to sweep a woman’s hair up and off of her neck.  As with hard rubber, celluloid was marketed as a solid, lasting material; the Montgomery Ward catalog from 1895 “recommend[s] for durability ornaments described as Celluloid.  They are very light and will bend double without breaking.”

Left:  Deteriorated celluloid back or neck comb.  Right:  Assortment of celluloid back or neck combs offered for sale in the 1902 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog.

Left: Deteriorated celluloid back or neck comb. (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)  Right: Assortment of celluloid back or neck combs offered for sale in the 1902 Sears, Roebuck & Co. catalog.

Because of its composition, celluloid is inherently subject to continuous deterioration over time.  The two major components of celluloid – cellulose nitrate and camphor – are organic in nature and fundamentally unstable.  (Cellulose is found in cotton, flax, jute, and wood pulp; camphor is resin from an evergreen tree.)  Cellulose nitrate molecules crystallize over time, and camphor evaporates following its expulsion to the surface of the object.  The chemical fillers added to celluloid to promote flexibility make it even more unstable by migrating to the surface of the plastic and leaving the material tacky, brittle, warped, and distorted.

Conglomeration of portions of celluloid comb(s) exhibiting severe deterioration.  (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

Conglomeration of portions of celluloid comb(s) exhibiting severe deterioration. (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

As with natural rubber, improper environmental conditions accelerate and intensify the natural deterioration of celluloid.  Unstable levels of relative humidity may cause swelling and shrinking in celluloid objects, causing cracking.  Pollutants, visible and ultraviolet light, and water are also detrimental to celluloid.  Because of the evaporation of and the release of other gases over time, celluloid requires a ventilated environment.  Sealed plastic bags only trap these gases and hasten the process of deterioration.

What Can You Do?

Although the decomposition of early rubber and plastic is natural and inevitable, implementing the right storage conditions can slow this process and prevent the loss of historic objects.

  • Identify and isolate problem objects.  Before visibly deteriorating, plastic emits a vinegar-like odor that signals impending composition.  At this point, separate these objects from the rest of your museum collection to prevent cross-contamination by released gases.
  • Store plastics in a ventilated space as opposed to sealed bags that trap damaging gases.  As an alternative, use gas absorbents like molecular traps or scavengers.
  • Consider an oxygen-free environment for natural rubber objects.
  • Keep light levels low.
  • Keep temperatures below 68 degrees Farenheit and relative humidity below 65%.
  • Do not use water to clean rubber or plastic.  Use brushes or a vacuum.
  • Photograph and document rubber and plastic objects before any potential deterioration compromises their integrity.
  • A cool, dry, dark, well-ventilated environment is ideal.
  • For more information on how to care for plastic objects in your museum collection, see Conserve O Gram 8/4:  Care and Identification of Objects Made from Plastic.

Natural rubber and celluloid objects are important vestiges of late 19th-century American history.  These ultimately fragile, organic materials preceded completely synthetic rubber as well as plastics like Bakelite and Catalin that were made wholly from chemicals and do not decompose as readily.  Celluloid objects, produced to imitate natural materials like shell, horn, and ivory, are often delicate and beautiful and reflect the stylistic tastes of the era in which they were made.  Although deterioration is inherent and inevitable for these materials, it can be managed through the use of awareness, environmental control, and a watchful eye.

Examples of celluloid objects.  Photo credits:  1. Celluloid comb, MFA Boston, https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/comb-96063.  2.  Celluloid button, Antique and Collectible Buttons Volume II, page 41.  3.  Celluloid purse, Purse Masterpieces, page 242.  4.  Celluloid button, Antique and Collectible Buttons, page 60.

Examples of celluloid objects. Photo credits: 1. Celluloid comb, MFA Boston, https://www.mfa.org/collections/object/comb-96063. 2. Celluloid button, Antique and Collectible Buttons Volume II, page 41. 3. Celluloid purse, Purse Masterpieces, page 242. 4. Celluloid button, Antique and Collectible Buttons, page 60.

References:

Care and Identification of Objects Made from Plastic.  National Park Service Conserve O Gram 8/4, September 2010.

Care of Objects Made from Rubber and Plastic.  Canadian Conservation Institute, CCI Notes 15/1.  (Accessed online, http://www.cci-icc.gc.ca/publications/notes/15-1_e.pdf)

Catalog No. 57, Montgomery Ward &Co., 1895.

Encyclopedia Britannica online (www.britannica.com)

Reilly, Julie A.  Celluloid Objects:  Their Chemistry and Preservation.  Journal of the American Institute for Conservation, 1991, Volume 30, Number 2, pp. 145-162.  (Accessed online, JAIC online, http://cool.conservation-us.org/jaic/articles/jaic30-02-003.html)

Robinson, Julie Pelletier.  Bakelite and Celluloid – the Differences.  www.celluloidforever.co/

Rubber in Chemistry Encyclopedia online (www.chemistryexplained.com)

Schwartz, Lynell.  Purse Masterpieces.  Paducah, KY:  Collector Books, 2004.

Sears Roebuck & Co. Catalogue, 1897.

Sears Roebuck & Co. Catalogue, 1902.

Van Patten, Joan and Elmer and Peggy Williams.  Celluloid Treasures of the Victorian Era.  Paducah, KY:  Collector Books, 1999.

Wisniewski, Debra J.  Antique and Collectible Buttons.  Paducah, KY:  Collector Books, 1997.

Wisniewski, Debra J.  Antique and Collectible Buttons Volume II.  Paducah, KY:  Collector Books, 2002.

http://www.plasticsindustry.org

 

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A Tale of Two Nations: Victorian America and The Japan Craze

Working in the Northeast Region of the United States, the archeology lab staff at NMSC are used to encountering a variety of artifacts types manufactured in Europe, but aside from the omnipresent Chinese Export Porcelain, we rarely encounter artifacts of Asian origin. This month, however, we came across several artifacts with unusual decoration that piqued our interest: a lusterware teapot with Asian-style handpainted latticework and delicate cherry blossoms, several sherds of Water Drop earthenware, and a sheet of zinc stamped with an elaborate pastoral scene and a partial mark declaring the piece “Made In Jap…”. These artifacts led me to investigate “The Japan Craze” that took the United States by storm in the late 19th century.

Prior to the mid-19th century, Japan was an almost completely isolated nation, partially in reaction to the devastating Opium Wars waged by European nations throughout Asia. This solitary period ended in 1853, with the arrival of an American fleet led by Commodore Matthew C. Perry. Through a combination of diplomacy and military threat, Perry was able to open negotiations with Japanese leaders for trade and access. Over the next twenty years, Japan experienced a complete overhaul of its political and social structures and embraced Westernization, taking the world by surprise with the breakneck speed of its modernization.

When the 1876 Centennial Celebration in Philadelphia rolled around, Japan had a few years of international exhibitions under its belt, and was prepared to get people’s attention. The Centennial marks Americans’ true introduction to Japanese culture and art, and though the initial reviews were mixed (as Wiliam Hosley notes, “America may have been flush with money, but it was still extremely homogenous and culturally immature”), American art critics were largely enamored. Embittered by the Civil War and disgusted by Victorian tastes and industrialization, aesthetes embraced everything they understood (or often, misunderstood) about Japanese art and taste. Hosley explains: “Japan offered both a diagnosis and a cure for the Victorian’s growing cultural malaise…Victorians feared that, in spite of abundance, the quality of life had somehow declined.” Japanese art objects symbolized what was disappearing in American life: the individual craftsman, both artist and artisan, who produced his work without the influence of commercialism or industrialization. The natural and harmonious themes predominant in Japanese art also appealed to a nation weary of urban expansion and industrial pollution.

The textile mills of Lowell, Massachusetts were at the very heart of the Industrial Revolution in America. Massive factories employed thousands of workers who lived in company-run boarding houses and even whole towns. These workers were the focus of archeological investigations performed in 1986 at the Boott Mill Boarding House site at Lowell National Historical Park. During the excavation, a few sherds of a mysterious ceramic were discovered: a brown porous earthenware with a thick, drippy glaze.

Two sherds of "water drop" earthenware.  (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

Two sherds of “water drop” earthenware. (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

Research by Mary Beaudry revealed that this ware was in fact Japanese in origin, and was known as “Water Drop”. She discovered that the ware was so ubiquitous as to hardly warrant description in trade catalogs of the era, despite its rarity in the archeological record. In a market previously dominated by British earthenwares, Japanese goods were so widely popular that they even reached working class households. The discovery of this ceramic in the back yard of a millworkers’ boarding house is almost too perfect as an example of the backlash to industrialization symbolized by The Japan Craze.

The American interest in Japan created a booming export market developed rapidly, especially for art and artifacts from Japan’s feudal past, of which the new Western-focused government was eager to rid itself. Japanese fashions, performing arts, and philosophy began to enjoy popularity in America. Kimonos, paper parasols, and folding fans became fashionable among ladies of all social ranks, as displayed in this portrait by Mary Brewster Hazelton from 1897 and the cover of Good Housekeeping Magazine from 1914:

combined photo

Left: Portrait by Mary Brewster Hazelton from 1897. Right: Cover of Good Housekeeping Magazine from 1914.

Japanese kabuki theater fascinated the West, which was only beginning to view actors and theaters with anything but distrust and disdain. In 1879, British author Edwin Arnold wrote The Light of Asia, a poem about the life of the Buddha, which sold thousands of copies in the United States. The West could not get enough of Japanese cultures. It is ironic that by seeking the authentically pre-industrial in Japanese art, Americans contributed to the rapid industrialization and commodification of Japanese art.

Black luster teapot with Japanese-style decoration.  (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

Black luster teapot with Japanese-style decoration. (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

One example of this commodification is this teapot discovered in the yard of the Commandant’s House in the Charlestown Navy Yard in Boston National Historical Park.  With no maker’s mark, it is difficult to place the origin of this handpainted earthenware teapot, but it clearly displays Japanese decorative themes, such as elaborate latticework and cherry blossoms, which were popular on all kinds of decorative objects. The teapot might have been made in Japan for export to the American market, or could be a copycat piece made by an American or British pottery. It also may have begun life as a plain, black luster teapot, which was then decorated by an officer’s wife or daughter, as painting pottery was a common hobby of well-to-do ladies in the nineteenth century, and Japanese-style designs were obvious favorites.

Furniture and other decorative objects were also influenced by or imported directly from Japan. Also discovered at the Lowell Boott Mill Boarding House site was this sheet of zinc with a stamped pastoral scene:

Stamped metal piece made in Japan. (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

Stamped metal piece made in Japan. (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

This artifact may once have rested in the lid of a wood or metal box, or could even have been part of a wall hanging. On the reverse side, it bears a partial mark reading “Made in Jap”. After the Tariff Act of 1891, all goods imported to the United States must be marked with their country of origin. Japanese goods were frequently marked as “Made in Nippon” or “Made in Japan”, with the later in use exclusively after 1921. This mark continued to be used until after World War II, when imported goods were marked “Made in Occupied Japan” until 1952. The context in which this artifact was found indicates that it was disposed of after 1910 (when the privy was likely filled), and before 1918 (when the site was no longer actively in use), when interest in Japanese goods was waning in America.

Though the popularity of Japenese style decorative arts faded in the early 20th century, both trade and the exchange of ideas continued. Eventually, modernist art historians would nearly obliterate the period from museum collections, disdainful of the lack of authenticity present in exported fine and decorative arts. Regardless of our opinions on the artwork itself, the influence of Japanese artistry on Victorian America is undeniable, and a fascinating window on the interaction of two disparate nations.

Bibliography
Beaudry, Mary C. “A Pernicious Influence? Japanese Water Drop Ware” in Ceramics in America, 2004.
Hosley, William. The Japan Idea: Art and Life in Victorian America. 1990.
White, Carole Bess. The Collector’s Guide to Made in Japan Ceramics: Identification & Values. 2002.

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Thank You, David!

From January 12 through February 8, we at the NMSC were privileged to welcome David Wooldridge, a museum technician from Appomattox Courthouse National Historical Park, onto our staff.  David, who worked with us while on furlough from his regular position, assisted in the archeology lab with a complex cataloging project  and in the archives with a book rehousing project.  His contribution to both projects was invaluable, and his warm, funny, and charming personality won over all of us here in Boston.  In this post, David recaps his experience working with us.  Thank you, David, from the NMSC!

As a museum technician from the battlefield and restored village of Appomattox Court House N.H.P. (APCO), my day-to-day duties are made up of maintenance of artifacts and exhibit areas, cataloging and care of museum collections, creating interpretive programs and media plus giving the occasional lunch break to interpretive rangers.  In 2000, the Northeast Museum Services Center completed a Collection Management Plan at APCO, but that was the only interaction I had with their office.  Last month, however, that all changed.  As the time of my annual furlough approached, I once again reached out to NPS sites hoping to find a temporary duty detail somewhere.  Eventually, I had to choose between offers from Fort Donelson National Battlefield, New Bedford Whaling N.H.P., the regional curatorial storage facility at the Timucuan Ecological and Historical Preserve in Florida, and the Northeast Museum Services Center in Boston.  It being winter, I naturally chose the NMSC.  The first question NMSC Curator Alicia Paresi asked me was, “How do you feel about working in Boston in the winter?”  Not having spent more than a car ride on the interstate in Boston, I had considerably less knowledge of Boston winters than I did the day-to-day workload of the NMSC.  But I left the balmy clime of Virginia for the Northeast Museum Services Center in Boston.

At the NMSC, I arrived smack dab in the middle of the organizing and cataloging of a  . . . challenging archeology cataloging project.  As entrenched as they were in this project, the NMSC staff was kind, gracious and patient enough to take the time to share their knowledge of ceramic wares, glass types and best methods for identifying and dealing with archeological fragments of all types.  They also made suggestions for finding the best pizza place, what time to catch the last train on the T, and the location of the best colonial headstones to photograph.  During my time at NMSC, I was able to travel to Salem Maritime N.H.S. to help reconfigure curatorial storage space.  I also created custom archival enclosures for field books and dock registers from the Charlestown Navy Yard (a part of Boston N.H.P.).  In my off time, I explored as much of Boston’s history as I could in 8 to 10 hours a day.  I became a regular on the T. I spent several Sundays in the boxed pews at Christ Church in Boston, better known as the Old North Church, where the famous lanterns were hung to warn of approaching British troops.  I also tackled what was perhaps the most difficult task of my whole trip- choosing whether Mike’s or Modern Pastry made the better cannoli.  After much research I still could not conclude which cannoli was the best; I suppose I’ll have to continue my investigation during my next trip.

Of all the adventures I’ve experienced and new knowledge I’ve acquired during my stint here at the NMSC, the most important thing I leave with is a greater understanding and intense appreciation of the work that is done by the professionals here.  On the front line where artifacts and collections meet visitors and the public, it is far too easy to take for granted the hard work that goes on behind the scenes by meticulous and passionate people such as the curators, catalogers, and archivists here at the NMSC.  They are among the caretakers of the artifacts that we – the National Park Service – have the privilege to preserve in the name of the American people.  As great an opportunity as it is to share NPS collections with the public, it is equally important to care for these items, catalog them, mend them, and store them properly so that they will survive into the future for generations yet to come.  The NMSC staff does this with great dedication and zeal.

So I am glad I decided to spend my winter furlough in Boston identifying and cataloging ceramic and glass sherds, installing museum collection shelving, and rehousing aged docking registers.  Although the Boston winter was cold, it was no match for the warmth and camaraderie of the NMSC staff.

David Wooldridge hard at work in the NMSC archeology lab.  (NMSC photo)

David Wooldridge hard at work in the NMSC archeology lab. (NMSC photo)

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Matters of the Heart: Laughter, Love, and Loss at the Boott Mills

Here in the NMSC archeology lab, we are currently processing an archeological collection from the Boott Mills Boarding House site at Lowell National Historical Park (LOWE).  The first large-scale factory town in the U.S., Lowell is credited with starting the American Industrial Revolution by the 1830s.  Young women came from rural New England to Lowell to work in the factories and earn an independent living.  Despite this new taste of autonomy for many young women, hours were long, wages were low, and working conditions were dangerous.  And so began the plight of the New England mill worker.

The unskilled workers and immigrants who worked in New England’s 19th-century mills and factories are often treated collectively by history.  What was their background?  What conditions did they endure?  What was their involvement in labor protest movements?  The personal lives of these workers are largely invisible in the historical record.

Archeology is valued for its potential to reveal aspects of daily life that are missing from historical documents.  Archeological artifacts can tell us about what everyday people ate for dinner, what they wore, and what they did for fun.  As Valentine’s Day approaches, we wonder:  what can archeology tell us about…love? 

Sometimes, an artifact can hint at matters of the heart, like laughter, love, or loss.  The archeology collection from the Boott Mills contains four personal items that we found particularly touching:  a celluloid, pin-back button reading “Kiss Me —, I’m Sterilized,” a plain, gold wedding band, and a pair of mourning brooches.  As much as we appreciate the ceramics we catalog in the lab for what they can tell us about foodways and trade patterns, artifacts like these from Lowell can provide a rare glimpse at that very human quality, emotion.

Pin-Back Button

Pin-Back Button from Boott Mills Boardinghouse reading "Kiss Me, I'm Sterilized" (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC).

Pin-Back Button from Boott Mills Boardinghouse reading “Kiss Me —, I’m Sterilized!” (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC).

A pin-back button is characterized by a button-shaped metal disk that is fastened to clothing using a pin, clutch, or similar mechanism.  What remains of the pin-back button from LOWE is celluloid film with a drawing imprinted on the back and some traces of metal indicating a surrounding metal ring.  The paper or fabric on which the image was originally imprinted is gone.  By examining an image of an intact identical button, we can see what it would have looked like when in use.  (We love the period fashion, and is that a syringe stuck in the woman’s arm?!)

Intact "Kiss Me Kid, I'm Sterilized!" Pin-Back Button.  Image found online at http://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/vintage-kiss-me-im-sterilized-pinback-button

Intact “Kiss Me Kid, I’m Sterilized!” Pin-Back Button. Image found at http://www.worthpoint.com/worthopedia/vintage-kiss-me-im-sterilized-pinback-button

The first design for a pin-back button in the U.S. was patented in 1896 (wikipedia).  Newspapers from Australia and New Zealand devoted articles to the “new fashion” of wearing buttons in March of 1913.  According to these reports, “the most popular of the new style buttons reads:  ‘Kiss me, I’m sterilised.’”  These articles offer an amusing take on early 20th-century Americans’ lack of propriety, explaining that “The American does not wear a high hat and a frock coat…Nor does he even wear a jacket and a high hat…Therefore, he has no hesitancy in displaying the buttons,” which “doubtless…will not make headway in England.” (See Poverty Bay Herald, Volume XXXX, Issue 12996, 1 March 1913 (Gisborne, New Zealand) and Townsville Daily Bulletin, Queensland, Australia, 3 March 1913).

Despite this depiction of uncouth, button-wearing Americans as audacious and carefree, the “Kiss Me, I’m Sterilized” button from Lowell may actually tell a serious story.  Boston was struck with an outbreak of Spanish influenza in the summer of 1918.  141 people died of the flu in one week that October.  Tufts Medical Center in Medford began offering vaccinations soon after the outbreak occurred (Beaudry and Mrozowski 1989).  It is likely that the pin was worn by a recently vaccinated young man or woman (probably a woman, given the history of the boarding house) who was pursuing lightheartedness – and a date! –  during what must have been a very scary time.

Wedding Band

Plain gold wedding band from Boott Mills Boarding House.  (Photo by Norm Eggert by NMSC)

Plain gold wedding band from Boott Mills Boarding House. (Photo by Norm Eggert by NMSC)

The wedding band from the Boott Mills is a plain gold band measuring about half a centimeter thick.  The traditional wedding vows outlined in the Book of Common Prayer, which dates to 1549, include mention of a wedding ring:  “With this Ring I thee wed…”  Wedding rings were not standard for men or women in 17th- and 18th-century America, but became common by the end of the 18th century.  At this time, wedding rings were often simple bands, the design symbolizing an unbreakable contract.  They were worn on the fourth finger of the hand because people believed there to be a vein near that finger that flowed straight to the heart(White 2005).   By the late 19th century, customers could order gold rings from the Sears and Roebuck catalog.

Page from Sears, Roebuck & Co. 1897 catalog, page 423.

Page from Sears, Roebuck & Co. 1897 catalog, page 423.

Of course, the wedding band from the LOWE collection does not necessarily mean wedded bliss for a past resident of the Boott Mills.  We do not know the details of the relationship symbolized by this ring.  What this artifact does indicate, however, is a vow that was made, and a partnership that was created, between two people.

Mourning Brooches

Before the 19th century, mourning dress was a luxury confined to the upper classes.  Around the middle of the 19th century, clothes and jewelry began to be mass produced and more people could afford to purchase clothing and accessories specifically designed for mourning.  Mourning etiquette reached new heights during the Victorian era.  The early period of mourning required all black clothing and accessories; later, women could wear mauve or lilac, which were considered appropriate “half mourning” colors.

Woman in mourning, ca. 1855.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

Woman in mourning, ca. 1855. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

The most common form of mourning jewelry was the ring, which was often designed to contain a small lock of the deceased’s hair.  Mourning watches, pendants, lockets, and brooches were also popular.  Brooches became particularly popular in the late 19th century. 

The two mourning brooches from the Boott Mill site have copper alloy frames and remnants of pin clasps.  One has a simple braided frame while the other’s frame is slightly more elaborate.  Both pins show evidence of photographic paper and emulsion.

Mourning brooches from the Boott Mills Boarding House.  (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC)

Mourning brooches from the Boott Mills Boarding House. (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC)

The development of photography in the 1840s led to mourning pieces featuring not only locks of hair, but also photographs of a deceased loved one.  In the 1860s, “swivel brooches,” which showcase hair on one side and a photograph on the other – became the height of mourning fashion.  By the 20th century, mourning etiquette was starting to relax, but people continued to wear mourning pins much like these from the Boott Mills well into the 1900s.  Although residue is visible on both of the pins from LOWE that indicates the presence of photographs at one time, not a trace of an image can be discerned on either piece.  We do not know who wore these pins, or whose faces were captured in the photographs.  Even so, these artifacts suggest quite poignantly a sense of grief and loss for someone who lived at the boarding house.

Example of Victorian Swivel Brooch.  Image found at http://img1.etsystatic.com/039/0/5754727/il_340x270.506278013_f9zp.jpg

Example of Victorian Swivel Brooch. Image found at http://img1.etsystatic.com/039/0/5754727/il_340x270.506278013_f9zp.jpg

These four artifacts cannot tell us any specific details about the lives of the individuals who once owned them.  We do not know who donned the “Kiss Me” pin.  The wedding band is not engraved with a name or a date.  The photographs that were once worn inside of the brooches are long gone.  What these artifacts can offer us, however, is a glimpse into some very intimate moments in the past.  These artifacts speak of laughter as an anecdote for fear and uncertainty, love and commitment, and grief and sadness.  They also speak of young women who were more than members of the “Lowell Mill Girls,” as they are commonly called.  Lastly, these personal items drive home the fact that despite how much some things have changed since the early days of American industry, some things – like matters of the heart – have not changed much at all.

Early 20th-century Valentine's Day card.

Early 20th-century Valentine’s Day card.  Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, public domain.

References:

Beaudry, Mary C. and Stephen A. Mrozowski, editors.  Interdisciplinary Investigations of the Boott Mills, Lowell, Massachusetts.  North Atlantic Regional Office, National Park Service, 1989.

Fales, Martha Gandy.  Jewelry in America 1600-1900.  Woodbridge, Suffolk:  Antique Collectors’ Club, 1995.

Mrozowski, Stephen A., Grace H. Ziesing, and Mary C. Beaudry.  Living on the Boott:  Historical Archaeology at the Boott Mills Boardinghouses, Lowell, Massachusetts.  Amherst:  University of Massachusetts Press, 1996.

Ridgley, Heidi.  “An Indusrial Revolution.”  In National Parks, Spring 2009.

Sears Roebuck & Co. Catalogue, 1897.

Wikipedia.com

White, Carolyn L.  American Artifacts of Personal Adornment 1680-1820.  Lanham:  AltaMira Press, 2005.

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Natural Nuisance: Non-native Invasive Plants at Acadia National Park

By Danielle Hubing, archives specialist at NMSC

Non-native plants have long been an issue in Acadia National Park, as well as in many other parks throughout country. Take a look at these photograhs and see if you can determine which of these plants is not native to Acadia National Park.

A. Witch Hazel

witch hazel

B. Canada Lily

canada lily

C. Purple Loosestrife

purple loosestrife

D. New York Fern

new york fern

E. Sugar maple

sugar maple

F. Cinnamon Fern cinnamon fern
All photographs courtesy of the United States Department of Agriculture: Natural Resources Conservation Service: Plants Database:  http://plants.usda.gov/

If you answered “C. Purple Loosestrife” you are right!  Other plants in the park that are commonly mistaken as native include: black locust, rugosa rose, garden lupine, Norway maple, highbush, cranberry, ash-leaved maple and Japanese barberry.

Many people assume that purple loosestrife is native to Maine because it is so widespread throughout the state.  It is not native, and once it is introduced to an area, it spreads very quickly, displacing native plants, especially in high-value habitats like wetlands.  Purple loosestrife is present in at least 43 states and considered to be a noxious weed in 33 of them.  In 1988 it was considered the most threating invasive plant in Acadia National Park.

Acadia National Park’s Resource Management Records (1854-2012) Collection chronicles the non-native plant management and revegetation (the process of replanting native plants to restore the landscape to its original form) efforts of the park, of which managing purple loosestrife was a major focus.  Beginning in 1988, the Vegetation Management Division documented native and non-native plants in the park.  Purple loosestrife was identified as a major environmental threat because it infringes upon food plants for wildlife.  An aggressive management program of surveying, spraying and monitoring was initiated in 1988.  Surveying occurred by foot, by canoe, by car and by bicycle.  Once the areas where purple loosestrife could be found were documented, each individual plant was hand sprayed with a 1% glysophate herbicide solution. Post-spray mortality was evaluated and flowering heads were removed to prevent seeds from spreading.  The survey/spray data sheets for 1998-2005 can be found in the park’s Resource Management Records collection.

Today, twenty-seven non-native invasive plants are actively monitored and managed in the park, including: garlic mustard, shrub honeysuckles, Canada thistle, glossy buckthorn, foxglove, Japanese knotweed, giant hogweed, and coltsfoot.

Park staff has worked closely with garden clubs to help encourage the sale of native plants that can be used for landscaping.  Park staff also maintained records of plant species found on federal property, surveyed for endangered and threatened plants, and directed revegetation efforts to heal disturbed or trampled areas.  Seeds of native plants were collected throughout the park and transported to Natural Resource Conservation Service nurseries in New Jersey and New York to be raised to transplant size.  Prior to any construction on park lands, flora surveys were conducted to gather baseline data on rare or invasive plants.  Sometimes, prior to construction native plants were salvaged and used for revegetation projects.  Sites in need of revegetation were prioritized, high-priority sites were re-planted with native transplants, and the success of revegetation was monitored.  Revegetation project notes are included in the park’s Resource Management Records collection.

Natural resource collections such as the Acadia National Park Resource Management Records can be invaluable to parks.  The collection holds Reports and Annual Summaries for Purple Loosestrife Management from 1988-2005; 2007. In 2006 budget cutbacks resulted in purple loosestrife not actively being sprayed.  Monitoring showed that the plant was beginning to spread to areas where it had been previously eradicated. Since then, purple loosestrife has been actively monitored and managed.  Annual records provide important information to managers so they know where purple loosestrife has been previously found within the park, allowing those areas to be monitored to prevent future spread of the plant, protecting important wetlands and wildlife habitats.

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