The Curator’s Role in Crowd-Pleasing Events, Part 3: Planning and Logistics

As Christmas approaches quickly (yes, it’s only 4 days away!), the third installment of our holiday decorating blog series offers advice on coordinating the logistics of a seasonal event at your historic house museum.  The Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site has been hosting a Victorian Christmas event for forty years. Many thanks to the site’s curator, Lenora Henson, for the extraordinarily helpful tips presented here!  

[The following blog post written by Lenora M. Henson.]

Site-specific preparations for the installation of holiday displays and related events depend on any number of factors. For example:  how many spaces are involved?  How big are those spaces?  What is being installed?  Are you adding holiday-specific objects from your collection, or installing (non-collection) decorations?  What sort of “prep work” needs to be done prior to installation?  What (if any) collections objects should be moved?  Where will those objects be moved?  Also consider: who is doing the installation (e.g., staff, volunteers, outside groups)?  What sort of assistance or supervision is necessary?  When will the displays and/or decorations be installed?  Will the site be open to visitors during the installation process?  Will any clean-up be necessary in the immediate aftermath of installation?  And, don’t forget the post-holiday piece of the puzzle: when will the displays be removed?  Who will remove them?  Will all or part of the decorations need to be stored for next year?  If so, where?

Your answers to these and other related questions will naturally guide your planning process – from the amount of time you spend, to the partners you involve, to the specific concerns that wake you from a sound sleep at 2 o’clock on the morning of D[ecorating]-Day. The following case study will illustrate how one historic site has addressed some of these issues and point out a number of successful planning strategies.

The Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site preserves the home where Theodore Roosevelt was sworn-in as President in September of 1901. Known by locals in Buffalo, NY, as the “TR Site,” it has hosted an event called “Victorian Christmas” for forty years. In fact, “Victorian Christmas” is the TR Site’s biggest annual fundraiser and is deemed crucial to its financial stability. Integral to the event, and much-loved by the community, are the decorations installed by members of local garden clubs. Each year, more than a dozen areas in and around what was once the home of Ansley and Mary Grace Wilcox are festooned with holiday trimmings.

Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site's front hall decorated by the Lancaster Garden Club, 2014.  (Image courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.)

Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site’s front hall decorated with the help of the Lancaster Garden Club, 2014. (Image courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.)

Coordinating the decorating efforts of a dozen or more garden clubs, while at the same time protecting the historic resource, requires considerable planning and cooperation. For the TR Site, the foundation of this process is the long-standing and solid partnership it has developed with the 8th District Federated Garden Clubs of New York State. Two volunteers from the 8th District sit on the TR Site’s Victorian Christmas Committee and are indispensable liaisons between the two groups. These volunteer chairs also provide a first point of contact for individual garden clubs interested in decorating the TR Site.

Planning for Victorian Christmas and decorating generally gets underway in February (yes, ten months in advance of the event!) of any given year. The TR Site’s Assistant Director, who manages the overall event, meets with the 8th District chairs to review successes and challenges from the previous year. As the staff person who works directly with the garden clubs, I am also at this meeting. Together, we finalize the information that will accompany the TR Site’s annual invitation to decorate for Victorian Christmas. This includes a list of rooms and areas to be decorated, a link to an electronic form that records each garden club’s choice, and a set of specific decorating guidelines. The packet of information is distributed to all of the area garden clubs at the 8th District’s annual spring meeting and luncheon. This event is a perfect opportunity to distribute this information, because the Assistant Director and I are on hand to present awards stemming from the previous year’s Victorian Christmas decorations.

Over the course of the next several months, the 8th District chairs work with individual garden clubs to decide which club will decorate each room or area at the TR Site. From my perspective, this works out extremely well since the chairs are familiar with not only the garden clubs, but also the possibilities and limitations of the TR Site. For instance, if two garden clubs have their hearts set on decorating a particular area, the 8th District chairs are much better positioned than I am to negotiate an agreement. Or, if a small garden club, with only a few members and even fewer resources, would like to get involved but is daunted by the pre-defined decorating areas, the 8th District chairs can work with me to divide an area appropriately or find an alternate solution. Generally, by the end of the summer, all of the rooms and areas have been claimed (or assigned, as the case may be) and the 8th District chairs provide me with a list of garden clubs and the areas they are responsible for decorating.

Shortly after Labor Day, I e-mail each participating garden club. There are several components to this mailing and a good deal of the information is repeated from the packet distributed at the 8th District’s spring meeting. While I was initially concerned about giving garden clubs the same information twice, I have come to realize that the first round of information tends to get lost over the summer. With that in mind, the early fall mailing includes a cover letter about scheduling for previews and “Decorating Days”; decorating tips focused on protecting collection objects and floors; the Curator’s Choice Award announcement for the decorations that “best capture the spirit of turn-of-the-century Christmas decorations in Buffalo”; and information on Buffalo Christmas decorations circa 1901.  This last item is excerpted from original research and highlights the wide variety of plant materials (including poinsettias, narcissus, begonias, mistletoe, orchids, lilies, palms, and pine) used to decorate the homes of prominent Buffalonians.

Dining room at Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Monument, decorated with the help of the Smallwood Garden Club, 2014.  Chandelier decorations installed by site curator.  (Image courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.)

Dining room at Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Monument, decorated with the help of the Smallwood Garden Club, 2014. Chandelier decorations installed by site curator. (Image courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.)

The flurry of phone calls resulting from this mailing leads to in-person, on-site meetings with representatives of the various garden clubs. These “preview” meetings are invaluable. They not only provide the garden club with a chance to see and measure their space, but also allow me to work with them to find solutions to the dilemmas created by the restrictions (no tape, etc.) imposed by the TR Site. I take copious notes to remind myself which (if any) artifacts need to be moved before garden clubs arrive and have found that these meetings make the chaos of Decorating Days more manageable. While some may consider it micro-managing, I have also found it useful to establish myself as the single source of answers when it comes to decorating questions. If I am the only person who can (or will) provide answers, there isn’t much room on Decorating Day for a conversation beginning with the assertion that, “Another staff member told me it would be fine to . . . ”

While it is impossible to anticipate every challenge that will crop up during Decorating Days, experience suggests that it is best to face the process with as much information as possible. Individual clubs are expected to let me know which day and what time they plan to come in. Before Decorating Days even arrive, I can get a sense of how many garden clubs plan to be in a particular area of the house on a given day to alleviate bottle necks in tight spaces.

Armed with my notes from preview meetings and the schedule, I can face Decorating Days with a fair degree of confidence. I can move artifacts, and we can stage work tables as well as ladders, garbage bags, and shoe covers in the appropriate areas before individual garden clubs arrive. In recent years, the TR Site has also chosen to suspend its regular public tour schedule while decorating takes place. This has alleviated pressure on several fronts and also helps by making additional staff resources available to focus on Decorating Days.

Morning room at Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site, decorated with the help of the Orchard Park Garden Club, 2014. (Image courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.)

Morning room at Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site, decorated with the help of the Orchard Park Garden Club, 2014. (Image courtesy of Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.)

Holiday decorations remain in place at the TR Site throughout the month of December and garden clubs are also responsible for their removal. So, while there is a huge sigh of relief when Decorating Days are over, it is important that I stay in touch with the garden clubs. A few days before “actual” Christmas, I send each club a quick e-mail. My note serves to express effusive thanks for all of their hard work, and also remind them about the “De-Decorating” schedule (usually January 2nd, 3rd, or 4th). As with decorating, the clubs are asked to let me know when they will arrive to remove decorations. While the de-decorating process tends to be much quicker and involves far fewer members of each garden club, there is considerable clean-up that needs to be done afterwards and it takes several days to get everything back to “normal” at the TR Site. At that point, Victorian Christmas is officially over and staff can take a short break, before the process begins all over again in February!

My tenure at the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site has spanned all or part of fifteen Victorian Christmases. The process of decorating can vary greatly from year to year, but it seems to work best when communication is open, on-going, and consistent. Further, I cannot overstate the advantages of organization and pre-planning. When present, these factors go a long way in mitigating many of the stressors associated with holiday displays and events at historic sites.

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The Curator’s Role in Crowd-Pleasing Events, Part 2: Philosophy and Research

We hope that you found our previous post about resource protection during holiday events helpful and informative.  (See “The Curator’s Role in Crowd-Pleasing Events, Part 1.”)  The second installment of this holiday series is presented by Gregory R. Weidman, Curator of Hampton National Historic Site and Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine.  This post emphasizes the importance of maintaining historical accuracy and site relevancy at your historic house museum during the holiday season.  

[The following post written by Gregory R. Weidman]

Attracting visitors to our sites is always important, and the public loves traditional holiday displays and events. However, it is essential to balance this with staying true to our institution’s mission. We have an obligation to do more than just entertain the public, to merely show them a house festively decorated. In creating holiday exhibits we should strive to be:

  • Historically accurate, but even beyond that . . .
  • Authentic to the particular site, its inhabitants, and its locale
  • Educational and informative in an interesting way that engages the public

Research and investigation underpin each of these goals.

Presenting Historically Accurate Holiday Exhibits

 Despite your own fond memories from childhood, a big Christmas tree with bubble lights is obviously not appropriate if your historic house dates from the Colonial Era! In order to accurately recreate a typical American Christmas celebration in the past you must educate yourself about the general history of holiday celebrations in America. (Some sites may highlight other holidays depending on their related histories). Fortunately, there are lots of sources from which to learn.

If your historic house is interpreted primarily to the early Federal era, it is best to eschew the traditional Christmas tree entirely, unless the site is part of a Germanic community. In a later Victorian Era setting, a tree surrounded by gifts may be appropriate. The “devil is in the details,” however, so care must be taken in selecting individual elements of the display. The tree would not have electric lights but candles; the ornaments would likely have featured dolls, toys, musical instruments, flags, cornucopias, and baskets of treats in addition to a few glass ornaments; most gifts of toys for the children would have been left unwrapped; and those that were would have been in plain brown paper or tissue with fabric ribbon since holiday gift wrapping paper as we know it today was not invented until the World War I era. You might even consider putting a smaller tree on a table, as shown in many illustrations of Christmas settings in the 1850-1900 period, rather than using a tall tree.

Thomas Nast, "Christmas 1863," Harper's Weekly, December 26, 1863. Note gifts under the table-top Christmas tree and stockings hung on the mantel.(Image source:

Thomas Nast, “Christmas 1863,” Harper’s Weekly, December 26, 1863. Note gifts under the table-top Christmas tree and stockings hung on the mantel. (Image source:

Being Authentic to Your Specific Site, the People, and Its Locale

 Even though a tradition may be accurate to the time period your site interprets, you should also ask: What do you actually know about the individuals related to your site? Do you know how they celebrated or even if they celebrated a particular holiday? Bringing together as much information as possible from documentary sources related to your site and its inhabitants is key in this effort. Also consider the particular characteristics of your region (cultural, climatological) that could impact what you select to display. For example, be sure the greens are appropriate both to the time period (avoid variegated holly in early settings) and region (e.g., no Magnolia grandiflora in Maine!).

Hampton National Historic Site (NHS), interpreted to varying periods of occupancy from 1790-1910, provides several examples to illuminate these points. The site preserves 62 acres in Baltimore County, Maryland, that were part of a once-vast agricultural, industrial, and commercial empire owned by seven generations of the Ridgely family. Hampton is lucky to have thousands of objects original to the site as well as vast archival collections which document all aspects of life on the estate.

The Parlour interprets the earliest period of occupancy (1790-1810). A Christmas tree would be inappropriate at this early date so we have chosen to show a fashionable Federal-era evening tea party. At this time, the mistress of the estate was an ardent Methodist, known for her piety and plain dress, thus we selected a less “spirited” type of gathering. For decorating, we selected locally abundant holly which we use sparingly, as would suit the time period and the mistress’ preference for things kept simple. Holly is probably the most frequently depicted evergreen in the pictorial sources from this era. Traditionally, it was used in vases and containers of all kinds, very frequently on mantels, and to deck picture frames and looking glasses. The use of holly in the English tradition is very old: a sixteenth century poem advises, “Get Iuye [ivy] and hull [holly], woman deck up thyne house.”1 Faux foods appropriate to an evening collation of the era, such as a festive “hedgehog cake,” complete the low-key setting.

View of the Drawing Room at Hampton NHS during Yuletide installation set up to depict the presentation of gifts to the enslaved children, ca. 1850. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.)

View of the Drawing Room at Hampton NHS during Yuletide installation set up to depict the presentation of gifts to the enslaved children, ca. 1850. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.)

“CHRISTMAS GIFTS of the Colored Children of Hampton, Given by E. Ridgely,” 1841-1854, written by Eliza Ridgely (1828-1894), HAMP 14733, MS. 001, Ridgely Family Papers, Hampton NHS, Towson, MD. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.)

“CHRISTMAS GIFTS of the Colored Children of Hampton, Given by E. Ridgely,” 1841-1854, written by Eliza Ridgely (1828-1894), HAMP 14733, MS. 001, Ridgely Family Papers, Hampton NHS, Towson, MD. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.)

In the Drawing Room (1840-1860) we interpret the pre-Civil War era. Because illuminating the lives of everyone who lived and labored at Hampton is crucial, it is particularly important to focus on the estate’s numerous enslaved individuals within the mansion as well as on the farm and slave quarters, a goal that could be hard to achieve in a holiday-themed setting. Fortunately, the survival of a remarkable document in Hampton’s archives has allowed us to bring this story to life. Eliza “Didy” Ridgely (1828-1894), a teenage daughter, recorded “CHRISTMAS GIFTS of the Colored Children of Hampton, Given by E. Ridgely,” a lengthy list enumerating the names of over fifty enslaved children and the specific gifts they were given each year from 1841-1854.2 The gift list (a scanned copy is on view; click for a larger image) records items such as dolls, doll furniture, toy animals, musical instruments, and toy soldiers, which we have used as a guide in displaying both antique and reproduction toys.

Hampton is able to display in the Drawing Room a plant that would not be accurate for most other mid-19th century American houses. Hampton’s mistress at this time, Eliza Eichelberger Ridgely (1803-1867), was a noted horticulturist who often introduced unusual and exotic plants to the estate’s gardens and greenhouses. Eliza’s account book records her purchase of “Eurphorbia Poinsettia” on December 15, 1848.3 The plant had only been introduced from Mexico to the United States twenty years earlier by U.S. diplomat Joel Roberts Poinsett, and was not in widespread use as a holiday decoration until the 20th century. In addition to the faux poinsettias, roses are featured in an arrangement on the center table, permissible in December since there was a “Rose House” among Hampton’s 19th century greenhouses.

The most traditional type of holiday display at Hampton is the Music Room (1870-1890). Oral history from family members informs our placement of the tree in the southwest corner of this room. Although decorated trees did not become commonplace in American homes until after the Civil War, we now know from a diary of Helen Stewart Ridgely’s (1854-1929) grandmother that her family had a tree in their Baltimore townhouse as early as 1861.4 In addition to toys placed around and a few wrapped gifts, the display features books the Ridgely children regularly received for Christmas, many of which have survived in the collection. This reflects the very popular 19th century custom of books published specifically to be holiday gifts. Illustrated children’s books sometimes feature Christmas trees with candles or other holiday scenes on their covers and inside, contributing useful visual documentation. By this later 19th century period, the holiday greenery in American homes had become much more profuse, with rooms literally swathed in garlands and swags. Ivy was one of the most popular plants of the era, so garlands are entwined around light fixtures, over mantels, and across table tops in the Music Room.

Left: Cover of Holly Berries by Ida Waugh (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1881). HAMP 7640, Hampton NHS. This period book cover is one of the many depictions of holly during the 19th Century. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.) Right: "Christmas Morning," Holly Berries by Ida Waugh (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1881). HAMP 7640, Hampton NHS. The details of Christmas stockings are useful for furnishing a period holiday installation. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.)

Left: Cover of Holly Berries by Ida Waugh (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1881). HAMP 7640, Hampton NHS. This period book cover is one of the many depictions of holly during the 19th Century. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.)
Right: “Christmas Morning,” Holly Berries by Ida Waugh (New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1881). HAMP 7640, Hampton NHS. The details of Christmas stockings are useful for furnishing a period holiday installation. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.)

Once you have determined your period of interpretation and philosophical approach to holiday decorating, it is a good idea to document it in files or a written report for the benefit of current and future staff and volunteers. The curators at the National Park Service’s Roosevelt-Vanderbilt Sites have been writing holiday furnishings plans for the houses they manage. Following Roosevelt family traditions and customs, which are very well documented, they do not embellish at the home of Franklin Delano Roosevelt because it focuses on the war years when the family only arrived from Washington a few days before the holiday. At Eleanor Roosevelt’s cottage retreat Val-Kill, however, holiday decorating is much more elaborate because she “decked the place out” historically.

Respecting the accurate holiday traditions of your site may lead to an uncommon decision—not decorating at all. When there is little or no historical evidence to support the interpretation of a holiday or special event, it may be best to either not start or stop interpreting it. For example, Theodore Roosevelt’s family rarely celebrated Christmas at Sagamore Hill in Oyster Bay, NY, so the park curator stopped the Christmas decorating and associated interpretive programs some years ago.


 There are many sources of good information on which to base your exhibits.

Primary Sources – These are very important, especially if site related. These include:

  • Original documents (e.g., account books, diaries, letters, scrapbooks, etc.)
  • Newspapers and magazines (e.g., Godey’s Lady’s Book, Frank Leslie’s Weekly, local newspapers from the historic period)
  • Gift books and children’s books of the period
  • Period cookbooks and housekeeping guides, such as The House Servant’s Directory by Robert Roberts (available in reprint)
  • Oral histories
  • Historic photographs in local archives (historical societies, libraries, newspapers)
Cover of We Young Folk: Original Stories for Boys and Girls (Boston: D. Lothrop & Co., 1886).  HAMP 3863, Hampton NHS. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.)

Cover of We Young Folk: Original Stories for Boys and Girls (Boston: D. Lothrop & Co., 1886). HAMP 3863, Hampton NHS. (Image courtesy of Hampton NHS.)

Secondary Sources – Books on subjects such as the history of Christmas and other holiday celebrations (such as Inventing Christmas by Jock Elliott and The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum) are very informative. Books on related topics such as table settings (Louise Belden’s The Festive Tradition), historic foodways, and historic interiors can also provide useful information, especially if they are illustrated with images of period interiors. Books aimed at collectors of particular items, such as Christmas ornaments, are also helpful. Specialized libraries such as the Winterthur Museum’s also are excellent resources for this type of research.

Internet – Although one must always use care, the internet can be a good preliminary source for the general history of certain holiday traditions such as Christmas trees and gift wrap. More importantly, it is an excellent source for products such as faux food and faux greens. Please bear in mind that it is important to do your historic research first to be familiar with the type of items you are looking for. Also, most purveyors of faux foods are primarily focused on selling to the movie and TV industry, so you need to beware of ordering modern items like spiral sliced hams or over-stuffed poultry! Fortunately, there are a few purveyors who target the historic house museum market.

Impact on Scope of Collection Statement

Unless they are rare or expensive period objects, decorations purchased for holiday displays most likely should not enter the museum collection. Instead they should be managed as props and stored separately from the collection. Eisenhower National Historic Site‘s Scope of Collection Statement contains the following paragraph summarizing this philosophy nicely:

The [park] maintains a collection of reproduction Christmas decorations. These are used each December to decorate the Eisenhower home in the same fashion as the Eisenhowers did. . . . These reproduction Christmas decorations, however, are not accessioned into the museum collection. They are considered to be ‘exhibit props’ since they are only exhibited for four weeks a year, are relatively easy to replace, and are not worth the time and expense to curate, considering the current extent of backlog work for original objects.5

Managing holiday decorations outside the museum collection also facilitates discarding and replacing reproduction objects when they become worn and no longer presentable for exhibit.

Being Educational and Informative to Enhance Interpretive Value

 Holiday displays should always support the site’s interpretive mission. Holidays are actually an ideal opportunity to educate the public since most people don’t know a great deal about the actual history of holiday celebrations. Exhibits such as Hampton’s Drawing Room are probably an unexpected holiday theme for most of the public, but is a great interpretive opportunity. Holiday displays can also dispel misconceptions and commonplace historical inaccuracies, such as lavish “della Robbia” style wreaths laden with fruit hanging on a Colonial era doorway. You can show the authentic scene and then tell visitors why it may look different than what they expected to satisfy both visitors’ interest in holiday decorations and your institution’s educational mission.


1 Libbey Hodges Oliver and Mary Miley Theobald, Williamsburg Christmas:  The Story of Christmas Decoration in the Colonial Capital  (New York:  Harry N. Abrams, 1999), p. 31.

2 “CHRISTMAS GIFTS of the Colored Children of Hampton, Given by E. Ridgely,” 1841-1854, HAMP 14733, MS. 001, Ridgely Family Papers, Hampton NHS, Towson, MD.

3 Eliza Ridgely’s Account Book, 1845-1851, HAMP 16583, MS. 001, Ridgely Family Papers, Hampton NHS, Towson, MD.

4 Pocket diary of Leonice M.S. Moulton, 1861, HAMP 40005, Ridgely Family Papers, Hampton NHS, Towson, MD.

5 Michael Florer, Scope of Collection Statement:  Eisenhower National Historic Site  (Gettysburg, PA:  Eisenhower National Historic Site, National Park Service, US Department of the Interior, 2011), p. 11.

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The Curator’s Role in Crowd-Pleasing Events, Part 1: Resource Protection

Each season brings different challenges for curatorial staff at historic house museumsIn the summer, we battle high temperatures and relative humidity, pests, and increased visitation.  In the winter, we deal with cold temperatures and low relative humidity, as well as the pressing question:  what is the best way to decorate your historic house museum for the holidays without jeopardizing the preservation of the house and its contents?    

 Throughout the next couple of weeks, NMSC will present a series of blog posts that tackle this very issue.  In the first post offered here, NMSC Senior Curator Laurel Racine discusses resource protection during holiday events.  We hope that you will find these posts helpful as you strive to balance visitor experience with preservation this holiday season!

[The following post written by Laurel Racine]

Who doesn’t love a festively decorated house complete with food, music, and entertainment thrown wide to the neighborhood?  Of course we all do . . . except maybe when it’s your historic house museum filled with irreplaceable site-associated art and history objects preserved from four generations of the family??

I chat regularly with curators from 80 national parks from Maine to Virginia. I heard often enough about the challenges of planning for holiday events that I created a “Holiday Historic House” information-sharing and support group.  At first we tried to pull back from the holiday theme, but found the main focus in the Northeast Region is truly holiday decorating, most often for Christmas.

Holiday tourism of historic houses is wildly popular as people seek wholesome, family-friendly events during the Christmas season. A well-decorated historic house can connect with people through all their senses and teach them about the past as they enjoy the season’s sights and sounds. While some curators have valid arguments against decorating for the holidays, others have no choice and decorating is a requirement. Then lights, food, music, and entertainment are the natural extensions of the holiday celebration sometimes leading historic sites to relax their policies to further promote the festive feel of the events.

So the challenge for historic house museum staff is to remain focused on the mission, resource protection, and accuracy among all the fun, goodwill, and festivity of holiday events.  Below are some practical thoughts and tips for keeping museum collections and visitors safe.  Future posts will address accuracy, logistics, and revamping a holiday program.


The Lyman Estate in the snow, Waltham, Massachusetts, 2010-2011.  Historic New England property.

The Lyman Estate, Waltham, MA.  Historic New England property.  Image:

  •  Plan ahead for storms because you might need to clear snow and treat ice for visitor safety.
  • Assess exterior and interior lighting to ensure there is adequate illumination for safe access and security of the building after dark.
  • Consider installing a temporary weather vestibule to mitigate the effects of a frequently opening door.
  • Use door mats and floor runners, when safe, to protect floors and rugs from tracked-in snow, gravel, and mud.

Visitor Flow

Tour in Shriver House Museum, Gettysburg, PA.  Image:

Tour in Shriver House Museum, Gettysburg, PA. Image:

  • Manage the number of visitors who can safely and securely be in the building at one time for a quality visitor experience and object safety.
  • Consider floor load, means of egress, visitor proximity to sensitive objects (including wallpaper), size of the smallest space visitors occupy, and sight lines for monitoring visitors.
  • Provide timed tickets or additional entertainment outside the decorated house to alleviate long lines of cold, unhappy people on the doorstep.

Objects at Risk

Staff decorating at Weber County Heritage Foundation, Ogdon, UT.  Image:

Staff carefully decorating at Weber County Heritage Foundation, Ogden, UT. Image:

  • Remember that objects on open display are at heightened risk, especially during the unusual circumstances and increased visitation of holiday events.
  • Move small or fragile objects farther from the visitor path or off exhibit in anticipation of more people in the building.
  • Record any objects moved for safety or to make way for holiday decorations so they do not get lost or misplaced. Photographs can help in replacing objects later.
  • Allow only people trained in object handling to move collection objects in advance of decorators.
  • Make clear that decorators are not to apply any decorations to the building or furnishings with adhesives, nails, or wire.
  • Place Mylar under greens and other decorations to avoid scratching surfaces.


  • Replace burning candles with authentic-looking electric candles.
  • Avoid lighting fires in disused fireplaces because old chimney flues can contain creosote or a crack allowing sparks to contact wood and start a fire.
  • Ensure decorations are made only from fire-retardant materials.
  • Avoid using space heaters.

Pests and Stains

5.  Gov's Refreshments

Realistic artificial food displayed on table at Governor’s Palace, Colonial Williamsburg. Image:  christmas/dec_wmsbgstyle.cfm

  • Serve visitor refreshments only in an ancillary structure to avoid staining and attracting pests.
  • Designate a space for decorators to eat (if needed) and remove food waste as soon as possible.
  • Use realistic artificial food as decorations instead of real fruit, candy, cookies, or nuts.
  • Avoid or actively manage the use of fresh or live plants and flowers in the house.
    • Inspect plants as they arrive for signs of pests or potential to stain.
    • Use only fresh greens (if not using artificial) to minimize falling needles.
    • Cover floors with drop cloths when moving decorations to catch plant material before it drops on rugs or carpets.
    • Place Mylar under floral arrangements to avoid scratching and dampening furniture.

Planning for a holiday event might sound (or feel) like preparing for the seven plagues:  inclement weather, crowds of visitors, broken objects, lost objects, fire, stains, and pest infestations but once the policies are in place and everyone is trained (including management!) it might be possible to enjoy the event as much as the visitors do.


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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:

Transfer-printed pearlware twiffler, ca. 1820. (Image source:

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:

Early 19th-century chamber pot. (Image source:

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:

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:


Pressed glass celery vase, Boston and Sandwich Glass Co., ca. 1827-1835.  Metropolitan Museum of Art.  (Image source:

Pressed glass celery vase, Boston and Sandwich Glass Co., ca. 1827-1835. Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Image source:

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:

Late 19th-century advertisement showing use of celery vase on dining table. Image source:

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!


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.

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:

Girandole with eagle finial, ca. 1817, in collection at Metropolitan Museum of Art.        Image source:


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:

The SAMA carved eagle on display on the second floor of the Custom House. Image source:


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:

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:

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!


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–. (June 2012)

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

Stamp, Jimmy.  American Myths:  Benjamin Franklin’s Turkey and the Presidential Seal., January 25, 2013.

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.



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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

Edwin W. Small, “The Derby House,” Old-Time New England.  Available at

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.


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.


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,  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, 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.


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,

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

Encyclopedia Britannica online (

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,

Robinson, Julie Pelletier.  Bakelite and Celluloid – the Differences.

Rubber in Chemistry Encyclopedia online (

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.


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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.

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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