“Housekeeping Ain’t No Joke”: Historic Housekeeping at the Wayside in Concord, MA

For every blog post I write, I think long and hard about a fun, witty title that not only piques the reader’s interest but is also relevant to the topic.  For this post, I hit gold.  “Little Women,” written by Louisa May Alcott, is based on the childhood of the four Alcott sisters growing up in Concord, Massachusetts. The home Alcott is writing about is the Wayside, now part of Minute Man National Historical Park.  At one point of the story, the girls are helping with the housework and refer to a quote from their cook and housekeeper Hannah that “housekeeping ain’t no joke.”  This could not be more true, especially when it comes to housekeeping in a historic house.

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Staff and volunteers posing for a photo outside of The Wayside. (NPS Photo)

The Wayside was not only home to the Alcott family, but also to Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Harriet Lothrop (known as Margaret Sidney) who wrote “The Five Little Peppers.”  Because of the many prominent writers who called the Wayside home, it has come to be know as the “Home of Authors.”  Three years ago, the home was closed for an intensive restoration and preservation project.  Now that the project is mostly completed, NMSC and the park completed an extensive cleaning of the home.

Cleaning a historic house is different than cleaning a modern home and entails much more than simple dusting and vacuuming.  While it doesn’t sound very glamorous as museum jobs go, we think of this type of cleaning as one of the most important things we do.  It is probably the best way to preserve these special resources from many forms of deterioration.  And, it is a fundamental part of making sure that we are presenting the structure and artifacts in a way that is not only accurate, but honors the efforts of these important historic individuals for whom this wasn’t just a house, but their home.

When cleaning a historic house, the standard procedure is to clean from the top to bottom, and from the inside out.  This ensures that you will not have dust falling on an already cleaned surface and also is very efficient.  Also unlike cleaning a modern house where people rely on a variety of chemicals for their capacity to work quickly, or sanitize surfaces, we take special care with the types of vacuums, dusters, and other cleaning products being used to make sure old, fragile finishes are not damaged.

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Two NPS employees dust the ceiling of the West Chamber. (NPS photo)

For instance, where you would use a standard glass cleaner at home, museum professionals use a much milder solution of distilled water, alcohol, and a few drops of ammonia.  Once the windows and other glass surfaces are washed with this solution, they are wiped with distilled water to remove any of the chemicals still on the glass.

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NMSC Museum Specialist Jessica cleaning windows at the Wayside. (NPS Photo)

When it comes to cleaning the floor, you must take the flooring material/floor covering and condition into account.  Unlike our rugs at home, many historic floors cannot be vacuumed the same way we are used to.  If the rug is in good condition, it can be vacuumed but not with the revolving brush attachment since it may pull up portions of the rug.  Instead, a vacuum with no brush, or even a nozzle attachment with a piece of screen on the end can be used.  If the floor is wood, it is cleaned differently based on whether it is painted or varnished.  We try to avoid wetting old linoleum, sometimes working on our hands and knees with a faintly damp rag to keep from dissolving the old adhesive.

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Regional Curator Sara demonstrating how to clean and protect a brass sconce. (NPS photo)

Special care is taken to clean all of the surfaces in the home including often overlooked places like the tops of window frames and doors, and even dusting the ceiling.  I certainly don’t get to this level of cleaning at my own home!

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NMSC Museum Technician Nikki dusting Sophia Hawthorne’s desk. (NPS Photo)

Once the rooms are thoroughly cleaned, objects and furniture (which also have been cleaned!) can be moved back into the room and the house prepared for tours.  NMSC, MIMA staff, students and volunteers spent more than a week going through the Wayside and making sure it is clean for its grand-reopening coming up in 2016 – an effort of 310 person-hours.  For more details, check out our Facebook album of photos and the MIMA website.

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Little House in the Archeology Lab: How Laura Ingalls Wilder Made Me a Historical Archeologist

I would embarrass myself if I tried to explain here exactly how much I love the Little House books.  I read them when I was eight years old, am reading them again now 30 years later, and have read them about a hundred times in between.  It’s a different experience as an adult.  I understand the historical, social, and economic context in which Laura Ingalls Wilder wrote her stories.  I am also aware of devastating family tragedies that she purposefully left out of her books.  Nevertheless, for me and many other readers, the magic of these books is timeless:  I am a forever fan.

wilder wikimedia commons

Laura Ingalls Wilder ca. 1894.  Image source:  Wikimedia Commons

One of my favorite things about Wilder’s stories is her detailed, loving references to the family’s stuff – the few, cherished material things that accompanied them throughout their travels, hardships, and triumphs.  Think of Pa’s fiddle, which sang the girls to sleep in the snug cabin in the Big Woods and under the stars on the open prairie.  Or the red-checkered tablecloth, which, when placed on the table in any of the family’s dwellings, provided the final step in making a house a home.  And of course Ma’s precious china shepherdess, always on a shelf out of reach, Ma’s single bit of finery in a rustic pioneer world.   As Wilder wrote in On the Banks of Plum Creek, “Ma allowed no one else to touch the shepherdess” (315).  If you love these books like I do, you know these objects well.  To me, they are infused with such personality and importance by Wilder’s writing that they become characters in the stories just as much as Ma, Pa, and their girls.

fiddle

Pa plays his fiddle as Mary and Laura look on in Little House in the Big Woods. Illustration by Garth Williams, image source listed at end of post.

Thankfully, Pa’s fiddle is preserved today at the Laura Ingalls Wilder Historic Home and Museum in Mansfield, Missouri.  I don’t know what’s become of the checkered tablecloth or the china shepherdess, and finding out would require detective work that is beyond the scope of this post.  (But oh, what fun that would be!)  What I do know, however, is that many artifacts similar to those written about in the Little House books are preserved in your National Park Service archeology collections.  As I read through the books this time around, I find myself coming across references to many objects that I have encountered at work in the NMSC archeology lab.  Butter molds, tin cups, picket pins, shoe buttons…I am lucky in that because of my work I can clearly picture these items as I read their names on the page.  And because of Wilder’s vivid descriptions of their appearance, use, and necessity, the books help me to better appreciate and understand these wonderful, commonplace objects within the context of modest 19th-century home life.

Thimbles

The Ingalls family made do with very little, and Laura and Mary enjoyed playing with things like pigs’ bladders, corn husks, and Ma’s thimbles.  “Laura and Mary were allowed to take Ma’s thimble and make pretty patterns of circles in the frost on the glass.” (Little House in the Big Woods, page 27)

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Brass thimbles from the archeology collection at Petersburg National Battlefield. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

 

Milk Pans

Although meals were simple and often modest, Wilder’s writing portrays the family’s gratefulness for and delight in Ma’s resourceful cooking.  “In the middle of the table she set a milk-pan full of beautiful brown baked beans.”  (On the Banks of Plum Creek, page 338)

National Park Service

Redware milk pan from the archeology collection at Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

 

Bullets

Laura and Mary loved to sit and watch when Pa made his bullets.  You don’t associate bullet production with cozy, fire-side family time?  Wilder’s writing may change your mind.    “First he melted the bits of lead in the big spoon held in the coals. When the lead was melted, he poured it carefully from the spoon into the little hole in the bullet-mold. He waited a minute, then he opened the mold, and out dropped a bright new bullet onto the hearth.”   (Little House in the Big Woods, pages 45-46)

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Lead bullet from archeology collection at Salem Maritime National Historic Site. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

Buttons

Mary and Laura were in awe of Ma and their aunts when the women donned their fancy clothes for the dance in the Big Woods.  How, after reading these words, could a button ever again be just a button? “Aunt Docia’s dress was a sprigged print, dark blue, with sprigs of red flowers and green leaves thick upon it. The basque was buttoned down the front with black buttons which looked so exactly like juicy big blackberries that Laura wanted to taste them.”  (Little House in the Big Woods, page 140)

BERRY BUTTON

We found this image online while searching for a blackberry button. This button is not from an NPS archeology collection. Image source listed at end of post.

Although we’ve never come across a blackberry button in the lab, we have seen quite a few very special, beautiful buttons from NPS archeology collections that were undoubtedly admired by other 19th-century little girls.

Sleigh Bells

The Ingalls family relied on their horse-drawn sleigh for getting around the Big Woods in the wintertime.  “The horses shook their heads and pranced, making the sleigh bells ring merrily, and away they went on the road through the Big Woods to Grandpa’s.”  (Little House in the Big Woods, page 132)

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Sleigh bells from the archeology collection at Saratoga National Historical Park.  Want to learn more?  Check out our 2012 post.  Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

 

Nails

We come across a lot of 19th-century, machine-cut nails here in the lab.  They may not look glamorous or exciting, but Wilder reminds us that they were a precious commodity for many Americans.  When Pa lost a nail while building their home in Kansas, “Mary and Laura watched it fall and they searched in the grass till they found it. Sometimes it was bent.  Then Pa carefully pounded it straight again.  It would never do to lose or waste a nail.”  (Little House on the Prairie page 126)

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19th-century machine-cut nails from the archeology collection at Hampton National Historic Site. Photo by NMSC staff.

 

Dishes

Blue transfer-ware was extremely popular during the second half of the 19th century. Maybe a “crackling little pig” doesn’t sound appetizing to you for Christmas dinner (and I’m with you there), but can’t you just see this blue platter?  “He looked at the crisp, crackling little pig lying on the blue platter with an apple in its mouth.” (Farmer Boy, page 324)

 

comb mary

 

Illustration by Garth Williams.

 

Combs

Pa brought home small gifts for the family whenever he ventured to town for supplies.  On his return from Independence, Kansas, he brought the girls combs for their hair.  “They were made of black rubber and curved to fit over the top of a little girl’s head.  And over the top of the comb lay a flat piece of black rubber, with curving slits cut in it, and in the very middle of it, a little five-pointed star was cut out.  A bright colored ribbon was drawn underneath, and the color showed through…they laughed with joy.  They had never seen anything so pretty.”  (Little House on the Prairie pages 270-271)

 

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Celluloid hair comb from the archeology collection at Lowell National Historical Park. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.  Why is this comb a little sad? Check out 2014 blog post about deterioration of celluloid and natural rubber.

 

I like to think of Laura Ingalls Wilder as a kind of literary historical archeologist, bringing to light and celebrating the wonderful minutia of everyday life.  I firmly believe that my own love for old things – and especially those used and cherished by everyday, hardworking people – was fostered in great part by her careful, attentive writing about the material culture she grew up with.  Thank you, Mrs. Wilder, for bringing the past so clearly and colorfully alive for children (and grown ups!) everywhere, and for introducing my little eight-year-old self to the wonders of historical archeology.

 

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Scratch-Blue at Petersburg, Part 2: the Scottish Connection

Remember our 2012 post about the mysterious scratch-blue creamware sherds from the City Point Unit of Petersburg National Battlefield?  These lovely, little, unexpected sherds really struck a chord with us, and the questions left unanswered after our initial blog post inspired us to keep going with our research.   We greatly appreciated all of the interest, questions, and comments our readers offered after our post in 2012.  Now, we’d like to share with you what we’ve learned since then.  While we do not have the answers to all of our questions, we do have a fascinating story, and with it, some insights into the world of historic ceramics that may surprise you.

sratch blue

Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

In 2012, we determined that the sherds were definitively creamware.  And not cream-colored earthenware with colorful green or tortoiseshell glaze that we know was popular in the mid 18th century,  but rather “true” Wedgwood-like creamware with thin, hard paste and clear, glassy glaze.  Archeological context assigned these sherds a pre-1763 date, making them too early to have been made at the two potteries we knew produced scratch-blue creamware (the Swansea pot house and the Indeo Pottery at Bovey Tracey).  Moreover, we could find no evidence that any of the Staffordshire potteries produced scratch-blue creamware.  We were stumped!  Then the staff at Petersburg National Battlefield suggested a link to a Scottish pottery, and our research took a really exciting turn.  As we suggested in our 2012 post, these sherds could represent some of the earliest creamware ever excavated on an American site.  And they might be Scottish?  Pretty cool.

appomattox manor

Appomattox Manor at City Point. Central portion ca. 1763.                    (Photo: NMSC staff)

Let us take you back to Appomattox Manor, the house built at City Point in 1763 by Richard Eppes.  To refresh your memory, when this house was built, an earlier house was demolished and its cellar filled.  It was this cellar fill that contained the sherds of scratch-blue creamware (hence their pre-1763 date).  The 1763 house was built by Richard Eppes, who lived there with his wife and children.  Richard Eppes married Christian Robertson, whose father, Archibald Robertson, hailed from a prominent merchant family in Glasgow.  Archibald Robertson came to Virginia in 1735 and served as a factor in the Scottish tobacco trade.  (Steele, personal communication; Horning 2004)

With the commercial union between Britain and Scotland in 1707, Scotland was no longer a threat to British interests and was able to begin trading with the colonies.  The Scottish tobacco trade, centered in Glasgow, flourished throughout the 18th century and peaked between 1750 and 1775.  (Devine 2004 and 1975; Habib, Gray, and Forbes 2013)

Scottish historian T. M. Devine writes that “the tobacco trade transformed the social and cultural world of Glasgow.  A new breed of merchants came on the scene.  Their wealth and commercial power were unprecedented in the city’s history, so much so that they were dubbed ‘tobacco lords’ as an acknowledgement of their pre-eminence.  They were said to promenade the streets of Glasgow clad in scarlet cloaks, satin suits and cocked hats, with gold-tipped canes in hand and an aloof air.” (Devine 2004: 73)

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Glasgow tobacco lord, 18th century.  Image source listed with references.

One reason for the Glasgow merchants’ success in the tobacco trade was their adoption of a store system in the colonies.  They purchased tobacco outright from the planters before shipping it overseas.  Scottish factors like Archibald Robertson oversaw stores where the planters could buy goods on credit on the condition that they would supply their tobacco crop to the factor once it was ready.  (Devine 2004 and 1975; Habib, Gray, and Forbes 2013)

Scottish merchants required a steady supply of manufactured goods in order to stock their stores in the colonies.  The city of Glasgow experienced a surge of industry in the 18th century in response to this demand.  The Delftfield Pottery was founded in 1748 on the shores of the River Clyde in Glasgow with, according to John C. Austin, “the express purpose of producing delft for markets in the Caribbean Islands and the American colonies.”  (Austin 1994: 15)  Historical and archeological evidence indicate that Delftfield produced (and exported to America) a variety of vessel forms, including bowls, teawares, tea pots, milk pots, mugs, sugar boxes, coffee cans, plates, basins, and chamber pots.  (Austin 1994; Turnbull 1997)

Shipping records show that large quantities of ceramics were shipped from Glasgow to Virginia in the second half of the 18th century.  According to historian T. M. Devine, Scottish merchants procured some ceramics for their stores from English factories, but “the bulk of the articles they sent out to the colonies was indeed purchased north of the Border.”  (Devine 1975: 63)  Robert Dinwiddie, one of the primary shareholders in the Delftfield Pottery, came to Virginia in 1751 as Lieutenant Governor.  The Scottish Lockhart Papers indicate that Dinwiddie’s ship the Blandford made “regular calls at Petersburg, 100 miles inland on the James River,” supporting the idea that Scottish goods were available to consumers in and around Petersburg (Denholm 1975: 83).

Given this history, it seems likely that there was a good bit of Delftfield pottery in use in 18th-century Virginia.  It also seems likely that Glasgow-bred factor Archibald Robertson may have offered some of this pottery for sale in his store, and that his daughter Christian Robertson Eppes may have owned some of these items during her time at City Point.

Archeological excavations at Williamsburg have yielded tin enamel sherds with painted decoration similar to that on sherds found at the site of the Delftfield pottery.  We examined the tin enamel from City Point in depth, hoping to find similar parallels.  We compared the sherds to drawings and photographs of artifacts excavated at Delftfield in 1975 and 1997.  We were not disappointed.  The remarkable similarities between the sherds leave us with little doubt that the residents of City Point in the mid-18th century were using ceramic vessels made at the Delftfield Pottery in Glasgow.  Do you agree?  Take a look!

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Historical and archeological evidence strongly suggest that some of the tin enamel from the pre-1763 cellar fill at City Point was made at Delftfield.  This brings us back to the star of this show – the scratch-blue creamware from the same feature.  We know it wasn’t made at Swansea or Bovey Tracey, and probably not Staffordshire either.  So, what about Delftfield?  Could they have been producing scratch-blue creamware before 1763?  We think so, and here’s why.

Although known primarily for its tin enamel, historians agree that Delftfield was producing creamware by about 1770.   There has been some speculation as to whether the pottery produced white salt-glazed stoneware, based primarily on references in newspaper ads as early as 1757 to a new, stronger, more durable ware.

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Advertisement in Glasgow Courant, May 2-9, 1757.  Found in Kinghorn and Quail 1985.

Vessels described as stoneware appeared in the company’s registers by 1759, and Historian John Gibson wrote in 1777 that the pottery began production of “stone” by 1766.  A 1772 advertisement in the Glasgow Journal touted that Delftfield had “brought the STONE and DELFT Ware to the greatest perfection.”  (Skerry & Hood 2009; Kinghorn and Quail 1986; Habib, Gray, & Forbes, eds., 2013)

Despite these references to “stone” and “stoneware,” no white salt-glazed stoneware has ever been recovered during archeological excavations at Delftfield.  What archeologists have found is a substantial amount of creamware bisque sherds.  (Skerry & Hood 2009; Habib, Gray, & Forbes, eds., 2013; Denholm 1975)  Jonathan Kinghorn and Gerard Quail write in their book about Delftfield that cream-colored earthenware with lead glaze was “known variously as creamware, cream-coloured earthenware, Queen’s china, yellow stone, stone-china and (ambiguously) as stone-ware.” (Kinghorn and Quail 1986: 39)  A 1773 advertisement in the Glasgow Journal claimed that Delftfield’s potters had “learned the art of manufacturing Yellow Stone or Cream coloured Ware.”  (Walford & Massey 2007; Kinghorn and Quail 1986)

If they were calling cream-colored ware “Yellow Stone” in 1773, perhaps the earlier references to “stone” denoted cream-colored earthenware as well.  And, most importantly here, perhaps the new, stronger, more durable ware advertised in 1757 (significantly before 1763) was not stoneware, but rather, cream-colored earthenware.  As scratch-blue stoneware was hugely popular in the 1750s, it would not be surprising to find that the Delftfield potters had decorated their cream-colored earthenware in a similar style.

 

If Delftfield was producing creamware in 1757, some of these vessels were probably included in the shipments of goods that Glasgow merchants sent overseas to their Virginia stores.  It’s easy to see how they would have then ended up in the hands and households of eager consumers like Christian Robertson Eppes.

The 8 small sherds of scratch-blue creamware from City Point sparked the most comprehensive and exciting research we have yet to conduct in our lab.  We read thousands of pages, consulted with several museum curators and archeologists, and became very familiar with the archeological collection from City Point.  Our research inspired us to reexamine the way we think about creamware – in this case, 1750s, scratch-blue, and Scottish!  We hope it will encourage you to do the same.  The more I learn about the history of City Point and its occupants, the more hooked I become.  This quiet, beautiful spot has so many amazing stories to tell, including the one we have just shared with you.

This research would not have been possible without the support of current and former staff at Petersburg National Battlefield.  We extend many thanks to Julia Steele, Emmanuel Dabney, and Jimmy Blankenship, among others.

References:

Adams, Brian.  Personal communication 11 June 2012.

Adams, Briain Personal communication 28 June 2012.

Adams, Brian and Anthony Thomas.  A Potwork in Devonshire.  Devon:  Sayce Publishing, 1996.

Austin, John C.  British Delft at Williamsburg.  Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1994.

Blankenship, Jimmy.  Personal communications 2012-2015.

Buten, David.  18th-Century Wedgwood:  A Guide for Collectors & Connoisseurs.  New York:  Methuen, Inc., 1980.

Chaffers, William.  Marks and Monograms on European and Oriental Pottery and Porcelain.  14th revised edition.  Los Angeles:  Borden Publishing Company, 1991.

Copeland, Robert.  Wedgwood Ware.  Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire:  Shire Publications, 1999.

Dabney, Emmanuel.  Personal communications 2015.

Denholm, Peter C.  Mid Eighteenth-century Tin-glazed Earthenwares from the Delftfield Pottery, Glasgow:  Excavation at the Broomielaw.  In Post –Medieval Archaeology 16 (1982): 39-84.

Devine, T. M.  Scotland’s Empire and the Shaping of the Americas 1600-1815.  Washington:  Smithsonian Books, 2004.

Devine, T. M.  The Tobacco Lords:  A Study of the Tobacco Merchants of Glasgow.  Edinburgh:  John Donald Publishers, 1975.

Edwards, Diana.  The Influence of Salt-Glazed Stoneware on Creamware Design.  In Creamware and Pearlware Re-examined.  Walford and Massey, eds. English Ceramic Circle, 2007.

Edwards, Diana and Rodney Hampson.  White Salt-Glazed Stoneware of the British Isles.  Woodbridge, Suffolk:  Antique Collectors’ Club, 2005.

Field Log, 1983 Excavation at City Point Unit, Petersburg National Battlefield.

Gibson, John.  History of Glasgow, from the Earliest Accounts to the Present Time; with an Account of the Rise, Progress, and Present State, of the Different Branches of Commerce and Manufactures now Carried On in the City of Glasgow.  Printed by Rob. Chapman and Alex Duncan, 1777.

Gray, Jonathan.  The Cambrian Pottery Before 1802.  In Welsh Ceramics in Context.  Swansea:  Royal Institute of South Wales, 2003.

Gray, Jonathan.  War & Peace:  Swansea Ceramics 1775-1815.  Haughton International Fairs, 2010.

Gray, Jonathan, ed.  Welsh Ceramics in Context.  Swansea:  Royal Institute of South Wales, 2003.

Gray, Jonathan.  Welsh Creamware.  In Creamware and Pearlware Re-examined.  Walford and Massey, eds. English Ceramic Circle, 2007.

Habib, Vanessa, Jim Gray, and Sheila Forbes, eds.  Making for America.  Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 2013.

Halfpenny, Pat.  Enoch Booth – Pioneer Potter?  In Antique Dealers and Collectors Guide, 20 July 2000.

Horning, Audrey J.  Cultural Overview of City Point, Petersburg National Battlefield, Hopewell, Virginia. Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2004.

Hume, Ivor Noel.  A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America.  Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1969.

Hume, Ivor Noel.  If These Pots Could Talk.  Milwaukee, Wisconsin:  Chipstone Foundation, 2001.

Kelly, Henry E.  Scottish Ceramics.  Schiffer, 1999.

Kinghorn, Jonathan and Gerard Quail.  Delftfield:  A Glasgow Pottery 1748-1823.  Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries, 1986.

Lange, Amanda.  Electronic communication, 22 May 2012.

Martin, Ann Smart.  The Role of Pewter as Missing Artifact:  Consumer Attitudes Toward Tablewares in Late 18th Century Virginia.  In Historical Archaeology, Volume 23:  1-27.

Massey, Roger.  Understanding Creamware.  In Creamware and Pearlware Re-examined.  Walford and Massey, eds. English Ceramic Circle, 2007.

Orr, David, Douglas Campana, and Brooke Blades.  The City Point Archaeological Survey, Completion Report, 1983.

Reilly, Robin.  Wedgwood:  The New Illustrated Dictionary.  Woodbridge, Suffolk:  Antique Collectors’ Club, 1995.

Skerry, Janine E. and Suzanne Findlen Hood.  Salt-Glazed Stoneware in Early America.  Williamsburg:  the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2009.

Steele, Julia.  Personal communications 2012-2015.

Swartz, Deborah.  PRA Research, Inc.  Preliminary Archeological Investigation of the City Point Unit, Petersburg National Battlefield, 1981.

Turnbull, Jill.  Delftfield Wares for Antigua.  In Scottish Pottery, 19th Historical Review, Scottish Pottery Society, 1997.

Virginia Gazette, 29 September, 1752.  Accessed online at http://research.history.org/DigitalLibrary/va-gazettes/

Walford, Tom and Roger Massey.  Creamware and Pearlware Re-examined.  Kent:  English Ceramic Circle, 2007.

Wyndham Robertson Papers finding aid, University of Chicago Library.  Accessed copy on file at Petersburg National Battlefield.

Image source for Tobacco Lord image:

http://www.glasgowhistory.co.uk/Books/Tollcross&Dalbeth/TollcrossCHapters/TobaccoLords.htm

 

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NMSC: Our Best of 2015!

2015 was a great year for NMSC!  We got to work with some amazing people and cultural resources from the Northeast Region parks.  One aspect of our work that we greatly enjoy is the ability to work on different kinds of projects, with different kinds of collections, at different kinds of sites.  This past year we processed an incredible archival collection from the Shelton House (part of the Rural Plains Unit of Richmond National Battlefield Park) as well as several interesting archeology collections from Gateway National Recreation Area.  We visited several parks in our region in order to conduct Risk Assessments and Curatorial Reviews, and got to work hands-on with some great collections through various technical assistance projects.

If you were on our list in 2015, thank you for your cooperation and hospitality!  It’s always a pleasure to work with you to help make your museum collections the best they can be.  We love what we do and we are looking forward to another great year in 2016.  In the meantime, take a look at some of our “Best of 2015”!

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Curating with Goofus and Gallant: How to Mitigate Risk in Museum Collections Storage

NMSC museum specialist Jennifer McCann has been on the road quite a bit this year conducting Risk Assessments at various Northeast Region parks. In this blog post, Jennifer outlines the purpose and goals of a Risk Assessment and talks about some of the things we can do – and not do – to keep our museum collections safe. 

[The following blog post written by Jennifer McCann.] 

As part of our ongoing mission to protect cultural resources in the National Parks of the Northeast Region, NMSC has recently undertaken a series of Risk Assessments. We visit all of a park’s collection-holding facilities and pose a series of questions about things like fire suppression, security, environmental hazards, and more. We use the answers to those questions to determine a “Risk Assessment Code”, which tells us how much danger is posed to a particular collection. Some collections are inherently at a higher risk due to the location of the park, such as in a flood plain or on a fault line. Some collections are threatened by the close presence of facilities that generally don’t pose a risk, but could if something bad happened there, such as chemical and power plants or airports. There are a lot of things that can happen to museums that are out of our control.

jenn's picture

Incredibly realistic drawing of hazards posed to museums. (NMSC staff)

We do our best to mitigate these risks in lots of ways: actively engaging our communities, creating emergency response plans, installing fire suppression systems, and keeping an eye on the weather. But there are many small things we can do every day to minimize the risks to our collection from everyday existence.  To help illustrate some of the things all museum staff (and volunteers!) can do to protect our cultural heritage, I enlisted the help of NMSC’s own Nikki and Jessica. If you remember “Highlights” magazine from your childhood, you might remember “Goofus and Gallant”: a cartoon which showed bad behavior versus good behavior. For our purposes here, Nikki is “Goofus” to Jessica’s “Gallant”. (Please note that all photos were staged, that Nikki is actually a very conscientious museum technician who posed under duress, and that no museum objects were endangered.)

What can you do to keep museum collections safe?  Let Jessica and Nikki show you…

Keep alarm codes secure

AlarmCode WITH TEXT

Jessica has memorized her alarm code. She doesn’t tell it to anyone, so collections remain secure. Nikki can’t remember hers, so she put it in convenient location where anyone can use it, putting collections at risk.

 

Keep collection areas locked and keys secure

keys

Jessica makes sure to securely close and lock the museum cabinet before walking away. Nikki leaves the museum cabinet open, with the keys in the lock, when she gets distracted, leaving the artifacts vulnerable.

 

Document and monitor visitors in museum collection spaces

VISITOR LOG

Jessica welcomes visitors by having them sign in and staying with them at all times. Nikki wants everyone to feel welcome in collection storage! While that’s great, it is not very secure.

 

Keep fire extinguishers in working order and in plain view

FIRE EXTINGUISHERS

Jessica checks regularly to make sure fire extinguishers are in their proper places and well-marked. Nikki stores supplies in the way of the extinguisher, endangering both collections and people.

 

Store and move boxes safely

SHELVES

Jessica moves a box down a shelf, out of the way of the sprinkler head. As a bonus, she doesn’t lift the box over her head! Nikki puts a box on the top shelf, even though it means the box will be within 18 inches of the sprinkler head. If the sprinklers are activated, the box will block water from reaching the whole room.

 

No explanation needed here…

Smoking

Jessica is so disappointed in Nikki. No smoking near collections or the buildings that house them!

 

Hopefully we don’t have to tell you…

Untitled-1

Speaking of smoking, you probably know that it’s a bad idea around flammable chemicals like acetone. Jessica safely stores the acetone in a locked flammables cabinet. Nikki is putting everyone in danger by storing the acetone on an open shelf.

 

Create an environment that suits the museum collection, not your personal comfort level

ClimateWITH TEXT

Jessica knows that the climate control is set for the safety of the artifacts, not for her comfort. She dresses warmly if she needs to be in storage for a while. Nikki thinks she should be comfortable everywhere and cranks the heat.

 

Do not eat in spaces housing museum collections

FOOD WITH TEXT

Jessica eats her snack in the break room, which is cleaned regularly. Nikki eats her snack in collections storage, dropping crumbs that will attract all kinds of pests, which might also decide to eat artifacts.

 

Review your Emergency Operations Plan

EOP WITH TEXT

Jessica takes the time to familiarize herself with NMSC’s Emergency Operations Plan. Nikki thinks it’s boring, so she remains unprepared.

 

Heeding these dos and don’ts  are just a few ways to make sure your collections aren’t exposed to unnecessary risk. What else do you do keep your collections safe and secure?

 

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What’s in Your NPS Archeology Collections? Take a Look at Gateway!

Here in the NMSC archeology lab, we love writing for our blog.  A lot of the work we do involves detailed, precise, painstaking tasks that are crucial to collections management.  We sort, organize, order, and label.  We check, check, and check again to make sure that numbers are correct and that tags and labels coincide with the right artifacts.  We like this work…we take pride in the fact that when a collection goes home to a park, it goes home neat, organized, and accessible.

The process of cataloging a collection always involves a certain amount of research, but because of project deadlines, it’s usually limited to determining the type, function, portion, and sometimes origin of an object.  Every now and then, however, an artifact inspires us to look a little closer and dig a little deeper.  These are the objects you see highlighted on our blog.

Writing for our blog allows us to take a little time out from the day-to-day to focus on one small piece of history.  Delving into the history behind an artifact provides us with that connection to material culture that first attracted us to this field.  It is a privilege and an honor to share what we learn through our research with the parks that curate these collections, with the public, and with you, our readers.

Case in point:  the archeology collections from Gateway National Recreation Area (GATE) that we cataloged this past year.  We cataloged almost 50,000 artifacts from GATE in 2015.  We examined, identified, and cataloged every single one, but for me, researching the stoneware mineral water bottles from the Cove House for a blog post is what connected me personally to the site and the collection.

What else is in the GATE collections?   A lot!  Here’s a sneak preview….but be sure to click on the links below to see and learn more!

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We cataloged two major collections from GATE this year:  one from the site of the VanDeventer-Fountain House, built ca. 1786 and demolished in 1903, and one from the site of the Cove House, built ca. 1780 and destroyed by fire ca. 1855.  We do not have the time or funding to research all of the artifacts in a collection to the extent that we did the stoneware bottles.  That leaves a lot of great research up for grabs!  Take a look at our summaries of the VanDeventer-Fountain House collection and the Cove House site collection to get an idea of all of the fascinating artifacts contained in these collections.

Take our word for it:  for every artifact you see explored in detail in our posts, there are thousands more in NPS archeological collections.  There are stories waiting to be told and questions waiting to be answered.  Archeological collections are treasure troves of untold history.  Intrigued?  We hope so!

 

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Archeology Collection Summary: the Cove House Site at Gateway National Recreation Area

The Sandy Hook Unit of Gateway National Recreation Area contains a barrier peninsula called Sandy Hook, which extends about 6 miles off the north end of the Jersey Shore and encloses a portion of the Lower New York Bay.  Historically, Sandy Hook served as an anchorage point for ships headed to New York Harbor.  The Cove House was built on Sandy Hook ca. 1780 and functioned as a tavern until it was destroyed by fire in 1855.

The collection of artifacts excavated from the Cove House site consists largely of late 18th- to mid 19th-century ceramics, glass, and metal.  The ceramic assemblage includes redware, creamware , pearlware, whiteware , porcelain, and stoneware.

The redware consists predominantly of utilitarian kitchenware, and the creamware and pearlware occur most often in the form of teawares.  These earlier wares exist only in very small sherds, but there are several whiteware vessels that are reconstructable and as such represent complete or nearly complete vessels.  These include a gothic-paneled teapot, a shell-edged platter, and a sponge-decorated muffin plate.  NMSC staff was able to definitively ascertain vessel form by mending many small sherds together.  We use only very low-adhesive tape for temporary mending to ensure that no residue is left on the artifacts.  In order to conserve storage space, the vessels were deconstructed after cataloging.  Proper cataloging ensures that all mending fragments of a given vessel are stored together as one catalog log, so that they could be easily reconstructed if so desired by park staff.

Most of the stoneware from the Cove House is in the form of late 18th– and early 19th-century German salt-glazed mineral water bottles.  Many of these bottles are reconstructable and almost complete.  Mineral water was a popular 18th– and 19th-century antidote to indigestion, among many other health complaints.  These bottles bear inscriptions and stamps that denote the spring and town from which the water was collected, and offer great research potential for a student of medicine, health, and historic ceramic production and distribution.  Intrigued?  Click on the photos for more information, and take a look at our previous post that explores these bottles in detail:  Seltzer Anyone?  Stoneware Mineral Water Bottles from the Cove House Site.

The Cove House collection contains a significant amount of nails, both hand-wrought and machine-cut.  There are several metal buttons in the collection, as well as several coins.  A few more artifacts of particular interest are a British halfpenny with two “tails” sides (we love this tricky fellow!), a writing slate with numbers inscribed on the surface, and a tiny, .22 caliber bullet that may have been intended for a pocket pistol.

 

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Archeology Collection Summary: the VanDeventer-Fountain House Site at Gateway National Recreation Area

[The following blog post written by Nicole Walsh.]

The VanDeventer-Fountain House was originally built as a farm on the southeast coast of Staten Island. The farm was passed down through the VanDeventer family, gradually being subdivided into lots amongst siblings, including a daughter who married into the Fountain family, through which the house then passed. Around 1885, the house was sold to Henri Mouquin, a prominent New York restaurateur said to be the largest importer of wines in the country. Mouquin sold the property to the Army in 1901 as the Naval Station at nearby Fort Wadsworth was expanding. The Army used the house until 1908, when it was demolished to make way for administrative buildings and dormitories.

The artifacts from the VanDeventer-Fountain House at Gateway National Recreation Area range in date from the mid-eighteenth century up through the twentieth.  The collection includes all three types of ceramics:  earthenwares, stonewares, and porcelain.  The earliest sherds, dating from the mid- to late-eighteenth century, include trailed slipware, tin enameled (delft), coarse buff bodied, creamware, whieldon, pearlware, and white salt-glazed stoneware.  The collection also contains wares from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries including plain, handpainted, and transfer-printed whiteware, domestic and imported stoneware, porcelain, yellowware, and majolica.  The most notable vessels are perfume and cosmetic pots, serving dishes, a candlestick holder, and a transfer-printed whiteware mug that reads “Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac.”  Click on the photos for detailed descriptions!

The glass in the collection includes freeblown, contact molded, and machine-made examples.  There are several intact bottles, including beverage containers, pharmaceutical bottles, and bottles intended for household cleaning solutions.  Click on the photos to learn more!

The collection contains a small number of nails (hand-forged, machine-cut, and wire), but a large quantity of door hardware (hinges, latches, etc.) was recovered, which may indicate one of the renovations in the home’s history.  There was also a small quantity of bullets, primarily dating from the late 19th to early 20th century.  The most notable metal artifacts were two conserved “Enniskillen Castle” brass buttons (one bone-backed) dating to the 18th century and belonging to a Scottish regiment that was stationed on Station Island during the American Revolution.

18th-century "Enniskillen Castle" brass button from Scottish regiment stationed on Long Island during American Revolution. (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC)

18th-century “Enniskillen Castle” brass button from Scottish regiment stationed on Long Island during American Revolution. (Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC)

Shell recovered from the VanDeventer-Fountain House includes quahog and oyster, as well as whelks and soft-shell clams.  Bones include fish, cow, chicken, goose, turkey, pig, rat, and other miscellaneous animals commonly found in the Northeast.  In one provenience a nearly complete turkey skeleton was excavated, which could indicate the main dish from a meal at the home.  The faunal collection is extensive and warrants further research and identification.

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Sorting at the Shelton House: What’s Accessioned, What’s Not, and Why?

Earlier this year, NMSC staff members Laurel Racine, Teri DeYoung, and Nicole Walsh traveled to Richmond National Battlefield Park to assist curator Ethan Bullard sort through residual items that were left in the Shelton House (in the park’s Rural Plains Unit) when the park acquired the house in 2006.  In this post, NMSC senior curator Laurel Racine explains why not every item can be accessioned into a park’s museum collection, how to determine what to include, and how to go about this daunting – but essential! – sorting process.  

[The following post written by Laurel Racine.]

National Park Service (NPS) museum collections grow every day.  The last official count put the number of items close to a whopping 45 million!  The vast majority of these items are site-associated meaning they were found at or used at the parks where they are still located today.  However, NPS staff need to make decisions about even which site-associated items to collect so the NPS’s museum collection is sustainable.  As much as we might like to, we do not have the staff or facilities to care for everything in perpetuity.

Some of the strategies NPS staff use to manage collections are collecting only within a carefully defined scope of collection statement, representative sampling, and documenting items without adding them to the museum collection.  When parks face a big job like sorting through the contents of an entire historic structure, it is helpful to call on knowledgeable outsiders to offer additional perspective and hands to help.

Three members of the NMSC staff assisted Richmond National Battlefield Park to sort through items at the Shelton House located at the park’s Rural Plains Unit.  When the park acquired the house in 2006 they and Shelton family members identified objects in the house during the Civil War for the park to acquire for its museum collection.  When the family vacated the house residual objects were left in the basement and attic, some of which the park moved to a storage pod nearby.

Shelton House, Rural Plains Unit, Richmond National Battlefield Park. (NMSC photo)

Shelton House, Rural Plains Unit, Richmond National Battlefield Park. (NMSC photo)

In advance of the project Curator Ethan Bullard drafted categories for considering the objects including retain for accession, retain for future examination during historic furnishings report research, and document but do not retain for the museum collection.  The historic furnishings report is planned for 2017-2018.

Another important aspect of pre-planning was addressing health concerns related to weather and an evident rodent infestation in the attic.  The weather challenges for this project involved the unconditioned attic space and the storage pod’s outdoor location.  The team chose to work in March to avoid winter and summer extremes.  Only certified staff with personally-fitted respirators and Tyvek suits moved items from the attic.  All other team members wore dust masks and gloves when working with the objects in the open air.

Many of the items were broken (chairs, ceramics) or disassembled (wardrobes) with stray pieces in different physical locations making the project a giant 3D puzzle.  As often as possible the team reunited component parts or grouped like objects for photo-documentation and inventory.  The inventory fields included item-count, known provenience, description, and new location.

Group of like objects at Shelton House. (NMSC photo)

Group of like objects (left) and fragments of broken ceramic object (right). (NMSC photo)

Reunited component parts of a historic object at Shelton House. (NMSC photo)

Reunited component parts of a historic object. (NMSC photo)

Another challenge was the many architectural fragments.  Prior to the project the team consulted with NPS Preservation Architect David Bitterman on strategies for retaining this type of material.  He emphasized the importance of provenience and collecting a manageable sampling of any type of fragment (more than 1, less than 5).  The team marked for accession representative samples of architectural fragments removed and tagged by the NPS’s Heritage Preservation Technical Center in 2012 and a handful of brick and mortar samples.  The rest of the material will not enter the museum collection.

Representative sample of architectural fragments and brick and mortar. (NMSC photo)

Representative sample of architectural fragments (left) and brick and mortar (right). (NMSC photo)

Due to their rugged storage conditions, the items were generally dirty and assumed to contain pests so needed treatment before they could be moved to collection storage.  The team vacuumed the dirt and bagged as much as possible.  Metal, glass, stone, and ceramic objects as well as wooden objects small enough to be treated in a chest freezer were sent to rough collection storage.  The team reorganized larger items in the storage pod to ease future access.  If any of these items are later deemed candidates for accession or exhibit they will need to be treated for pests in a rented freezer truck or CO2 chamber.

Storage pod at the start and completion of the project.  (NMSC photo)

Storage pod at the start and completion of the project. (NMSC photo)

The team identified about a dozen mid-to-late 20th century furnishings that fall outside the park’s scope of collection.  The team documented these items but they will not be accessioned into the museum collection.  Instead, the park has given these items to its friends group, the Rural Plains Foundation, to sell at a yard sale or donate to a local charitable organization.  The sales and tax benefits will support their efforts as the main volunteer interpreters at Shelton House.

20th-century object that was documented but not accessioned into the museum collection at the Shelton House. (NMSC photo)

20th-century object that was documented but not accessioned into the museum collection at the Shelton House. (NMSC photo)

If you are facing a similar motley assemblage of items (oh no, not the barn!!) and don’t know where to start, gather a collection advisory group to help you plan and execute a similar project.  Ours which addressed about 450 items took four days to execute plus pre-planning.  Pre-planning is the key to success.  Think about what expertise you need to address your scope of collection and the types of items you have to consider; what equipment (including personal protective equipment) and supplies you will need to clean, encapsulate, and move items; how much time you need; what time of year is appropriate for working in hot or cold spaces; and where future collection items will go and what treatment they might need beforehand.  That’s a lot of needs but gaining intellectual and physical control over ALL THAT STUFF is so worth it.

References:

Museum Management Program, “National Park Service Museum Program by the Numbers (FY2014),” December 2014.

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A Summer with NMSC: Caitlin’s Experience

Over the years, NMSC has been fortunate to have wonderful interns and seasonal employees.  A couple of weeks ago, we said good-bye to our fabulous intern Caitlin Harrison, who we know is destined for great things in the museum field!  Caitlin quickly became part of the NMSC family and got to experience several parks in the Northeast Region through her work on risk assessments with NMSC curator Teri DeYoung and museum specialist Jenn McCann.  In this post, Caitlin reflects on her time here.  Thank you, Caitlin, and good luck!

[The following post written by Caitlin Harrison]

Being able to work at the NMSC was, I believe, the best possible thing that could have happened to me this summer. Last spring I was looking for some sort of museum internship in the NPS to fulfill a requirement for my master’s degree. I’ll admit, I was desperate and would’ve taken anything. Want me to vacuum your exhibits? I’m your girl. Does a collection need to be inventoried? I can totally do that! My only prerequisite was that it had to be in a town I had never visited before; Boston fit the bill. Coming into the internship I really knew nothing about the NMSC or the work they do. They have museum in their name, so they must work with collections and they’re some sort of services center. I thought, alright, I can work with that.

Turns out, the NMSC is an important resource to parks unlike any other in the NPS. My internship included conducting risk assessments of park museum facilities and collections. Due to climate change and an increase in unpredictable weather patterns, risk assessments are used as a tool to identify the level of risk for collections in the Northeast region. My supervisors, Jenn and Teri, developed a system to quantitatively evaluate park collection storage facilities based on a questionnaire and site visit. Some parks are better equipped to handle natural disasters or vandalism, others need more assistance. Our risk assessments inform the parks as to where they can make improvements and what steps they can take to better prepare for possible threats to their collections.

Besides gaining experience to add to my resume, I found a home away from home in the streets of Boston.  The history of the city still amazes me and I spent my free time being a tourist up through my very last weekend, and there’s still more I haven’t seen! And don’t get me started on the seafood, it’s everywhere! Yummy Yummy Yummy. Plus I gained the friendship of my coworkers after we bonded over good music, our fondness of Victorian architecture, a love of all things nerdy and, of course, the archeology. The NMSC is filled with dynamic women who are passionate for what they do and filled with innovative ideas for the future of the NPS. I cannot wait to join their ranks as a museum professional in the near future. Thank you, Northeast Museum Services Center, for providing me with the perfect summer experience and introducing me to what it means to be a young museum professional.

NMSC intern Caitlin Harrison on site at Acadia National Park.  (NMSC photo)

NMSC intern Caitlin Harrison on site at Acadia National Park. (NMSC photo)

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