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.


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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Seltzer, Anyone? Stoneware Mineral Water Bottles from the Cove House Site

In my experience, Americans have a love-hate relationship with seltzer.  Some love the effervescence and refreshing taste.  For others, it’s too fizzy and not nearly sweet enough. Although a fan myself, I had not given seltzer too much thought until fairly recently when I encountered it here in the archeology lab.  A collection of stoneware mineral water bottles excavated from the Cove House site at Gateway National Recreational Area inspired me to explore the history behind the carbonated water we know as “seltzer.”  And that history, it turns out, is pretty fascinating!

German stoneware mineral water bottle fragments from Cove House archeology collection, Gateway National Recreational Area.  (Image source:  photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC).

German stoneware mineral water bottle fragments from Cove House archeology collection, Gateway National Recreational Area. (Image source: photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC).

Joseph Priestly.  Image ca. 1874, found online via Wikimedia Commons.

Joseph Priestly. Image  found online via Wikimedia Commons (See References).

In 1767, English chemist Joseph Priestley invented soda water by infusing water with carbon dioxide.  Later in the 18th century, J. J. Schweppe (sound familiar?) built upon Priestley’s findings and manufactured carbonated mineral water.  The Schweppes Company’s bottled carbonated water was first offered for commercial sale in Geneva in 1783, and has been popular ever since.  (Back, Landa, and Meeks 1995)

The bottled carbonated water business sprung from an attempt to emulate the wildly popular natural mineral water that was all the rage in 18th-century Europe.  The term seltzer derives from the German town Selters, which was famous for its mineral springs.  Mineral water can be defined as water that while underground, absorbs minerals and metallic trace elements from surrounding rocks (Erfurt 2001).  Beginning in the 18th century, mineral water from Selters was bottled in stoneware vessels and shipped around the world.  German potters known as Krugbacker, or pot bakers, produced cylindrical, brown mineral water bottles from the second half of the 18th century through the end of the 19th.  According to author Beatrix Adler, these bottles (and their contents) were a “huge mass product” by the end of the 18th century.  In 1874, Westerwald potters in Germany produced over 12 million of them!  (Adler 2005:  352)

Did people in the 18th and 19th centuries simply love the taste and refreshing quality of carbonated water?  Perhaps, but what they primarily sought in natural mineral water was not a tasty drink, but rather a cure for a variety of physical ailments.  In an era in which many people were suspicious of doctors and medicines (both of which seemed often to hurt instead of heal), natural mineral water offered potential relief that, if not always completely effective, was at least not harmful.

Throughout the 19th century, pharmaceutical companies were not required to label their products with a list of contents, so well-meaning consumers often had no idea what “medicines” they were actually using or giving to loved ones.  Most products contained dangerous and highly addictive ingredients.  Even “cordials,” “preservatives,” and “calmatives” recommended as daily tonics for babies were usually made from opiates and/or alcohol.  Historian Ruth Goodman notes in her book on Victorian life that “it seems likely that many babies died from the side effects of medicine, and that many others had their long-term health undermined ” (Goodman 2014:  248).  She asserts that “much of the popularity of the water cures of the nineteenth century was due to their providing an alternative to taking these drugs” (Goodman 2014:  283).  Given the options offered by the pharmacist – and procedures like bloodletting that were still commonly prescribed by early 19th-century doctors – I might have opted for the mineral water as well.

Left:  Mrs. Winslow's Soothing Syrup for children.  (Image source:  Wikimedia Commons, see References.)  Right:  18th-century image depicting bloodletting.  (Image source:  Wikimedia Commons, see References.)

Left: Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup for children. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons, see References.) Right: 18th-century image depicting bloodletting. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons, see References.)

Historically, there are two ways in which afflicted people have sought a cure by water:  bathing in it, and drinking it.  Bathing in natural hot springs as well as mineral springs was popular among the ancient Greek and Roman cultures.  By the second half of the 18th century, mineral water as a therapeutic beverage had become extremely popular in Europe and America.  Numerous historical accounts detail the relief and healing that many people found by partaking of mineral water.  English doctor John Hemming published his account of the mineral waters in Gloucester in 1789.  According to his report, people were initially afraid to drink from the local mineral spring because of the water’s color, strong taste, and bad smell.  Eventually “many cures were accomplished” by drinking the water (which he found to contain fixed air, calcareous earth, iron, and magnesia), including digestive problems, flatulence, fever, nervous diseases, heart palpitation, fainting, rheumatism, and of course, the ever-problematic “female complaints.”  (Hemming 1789)

So, did it work?  Mineral water has remained popular in many countries and has recently experienced a revival as part of the alternative medicine field.  It has long been held that certain of the minerals and elements in the water can have beneficial effects on specific ailments.   In the 18th and 19th centuries, people may have indeed noticed improvements to their health after drinking it because the water provided minerals missing from the typical diet.  Still today, some people claim that drinking carbonated water can help with indigestion!  Perhaps some people benefitted from actual improvements in their health due to the trace elements and minerals; perhaps some benefitted from the power of positive thinking amidst all of the hype.  Either way, lots of people were in on the craze.

Stoneware mineral bottles were common from the middle of the 18th century through the end of the 19th.  Around the turn of the 20th century they started to fade out of fashion as cheaper glass bottles became available (and as over-the-counter drugs became more reliable with the passage of the Pure Food and Drugs Act in 1906).  Details like shape, size, handle form and placement, and makers’ stamps can help to ascertain a specific date range and production locale.    The earliest mineral water bottles were ovoid in shape, with a basal ring at the foot and a squat, narrow neck.  They were buff to light gray in color and often had an impressed mark and/or a cobalt-painted letter indicating the source spa.  As the 18th century progressed the bottles became less ovoid and more bullet-shaped.  The second half of the 18th century saw the development of a different type of bottle that was produced by the specialist potters known as Krugbacker, or pot bakers, in the Westerwald region of Germany.  These bottles, which changed little throughout the 19th century, were slender and cylindrical and colored reddish brown.  They had straight, vertical sides by the second quarter of the 19th century.  Bottles were stamped with marks indicating the bottling company, the jug baker’s mark, the well number from which they were filled, and the town from which they were shipped.  (Adler 2005; Skerry and Hood 2009; Southeastern Archaeological Research Inc., 2010)

Evolution of mineral water bottle shapes.  Left to right:  bottle ca. 1701-1800 (image source, Museum of London website, see References); bottle ca. 1770 (image source: Skerry and Hood, page 55); bottle ca. 1845-1855 (image source:  Adirondack Museum collections website, see References); bottle ca. 1898-1930 (image source:  Museum of London website, see References)

Evolution of mineral water bottle shapes. Left to right: bottle ca. 1700-1799 (image source, Museum of London website, see References); bottle ca. 1770 (image source: Skerry and Hood, page 55); bottle ca. 1845-1855 (image source: Adirondack Museum collections website, see References); bottle ca. 1898-1930 (image source: Museum of London website, see References)

Some of the mineral water bottle fragments from the Cove House collection exhibit the light color characteristic of mid- to late-18th-century vessels.  Most of the bottles appear, based on their shape, color, and stamps, to be from the early to mid-19th century.  The “HN” on the partially reconstructed bottle from the Cove House stands for Herzgothum Nassau, which translates to Duchy of Nassau, and refers to the independent German state of Nassau which was formed in 1806 and was annexed by Prussia in 1866.  We suspect that the “EMSER KESSELWASSER” refers to a town or spring name.   Another bottle fragment from the Cove House is stamped “BAYERN KOENIGREICH,” which translates to the Kingdom of Bavaria, which existed from 1806 to 1918.  The “KISSINGEN” stamp refers to the name of the spring from which the water was extracted.

Stoneware mineral bottles from Cove House collection.  Left:  bottle stamped "HN" and "EMSER KESSELWASSER."  Right:  bottle stamped "BAYER KOENIGREICH" AND "KISSINGEN."  (Image source:  photos by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

Stoneware mineral bottles from Cove House collection. Left: bottle stamped “HN” and “EMSER KESSELWASSER.” Right: bottle stamped “BAYER KOENIGREICH” AND “KISSINGEN.” (Image source: photos by Norm Eggert for NMSC.)

The many maker’s marks, inscriptions, medallions, letters, and numbers present on these bottle sherds undoubtedly have much more to tell us than what we have covered in this brief post.  Intrigued?  We hope so!  This is just one example of a National Park Service archeology collection with incredible research potential.  Maybe you are just the person to dig a little deeper!

What we do know is that these bottles represent more than a preference of taste for the men and women who bought and drank from them so many years ago.  Mineral water was consumed – sometimes in spite of its taste – because of its supposed medicinal qualities.  Chances are when you pick up a bottle of seltzer at the supermarket, you’re not expecting it to cure you of nervousness, fever, or rheumatism.  For many people who drank mineral water from these old stoneware bottles, that’s exactly what they were expecting, or least hoping for.  We all know what it’s like to feel unwell and to hope for relief from pain or discomfort.  For 18th– and 19th-century folks, these bottles offered a chance to feel better.


Adler, Beatrix.  Early Stoneware Steins from the Les Paul Collection.  Germany: Dillingen/Saar, 2005.

Back, William, Edward R. Landa, and Lisa Meeks.  Bottled Water, Spas, and Early Years of Water Chemistry.  Ground Water Vol. 33 No. 4, 1995, pages 605-614.

Erfurt, Patricia J.  An Assessment of the Role of Natural Hot and Mineral Springs in Health, Wellness and Recreational Tourism.  Thesis, James Cook University, 2001.

Goodman, Ruth.  How to Be a Victorian:  A Dawn-to-Dust Guide to Victorian Life.  London:  Liveright, 2014.

Hemming, John, MD.  The History and Chemical Analysis of the Mineral Water Lately Discovered in the City of Gloucester; the Various Diseases to Which it is Applicable Considered; and the Necessary Regulations for Drinking it With Success Ascertained and Prescribed.  London:  A. Grant, 1789.

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

Southeastern Archaeological Research Inc.  Underwater Archaeological Investigation of the Roosevelt Inlet Shipwreck (7S-D-91A) Volume I:  Final Report.  Prepared for Delaware Department of State and Federal Highway Administration and Delaware Department of Transportation, 2010.

“200-Year Old Seltzer Bottle Found on Shipwreck”  Blog article found at:

Image Sources:

Mrs. Winslow’s Soothing Syrup:

18th-century Bloodletting:,_18th_century._Wellcome_L0005142.jpg

Bottle, ca. 1700-1799.  Museum of London.

Bottle, ca. 1770.  Recovered from Roosevelt Inlet Shipwreck Site.  Courtesy of Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs.  Image found in Skerry and Hood, page 55.

Bottle, ca. 1845-1855.  Adirondack Museum.;id=54AA5054-AA25-4A80-959B-384044535445;type=101

Bottle, ca. 1898-1930.  Museum of London.

Joseph Priestly, image ca. 1874.



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What’s Up Downstairs? Servant Life and Interactive Exhibits at Maymont in Richmond, VA

If you keep up with our Facebook and blog posts, you know that here at the Northeast Museum Services Center, we travel a fair amount. Since we are responsible for assisting nearly 80 parks throughout the Northeast Region, we often find ourselves traveling between Maine and Virginia. On these trips, we spend our time working on many types of projects related to cultural resources such as scopes of work, pack and move projects, emergency response, and other types of technical assistance. In addition to these tasks, we are also rethinking how our region’s historic sites are interpreted and have been researching museums and institutions throughout the northeast to see where interpretation is headed in the 21st century. In early March while we were providing technical assistance at Richmond National Battlefield Park, we took a much anticipated trip to Maymont, a 19th-century estate in Richmond, Virginia, to see the home and grounds.


The exterior of Maymont with a light dusting of snow. (NMSC photo)

Maymont is owned by the Maymont Foundation, which took over the property from the city of Richmond in 1975. The mansion was built in 1893 and lived in by James and Sallie Dooley until her death in 1925. It was turned into a museum after Sallie Dooley’s death and remains open as a historic house museum to this day. For decades, visitors have come to the Dooley’s home for a guided tour of the lavish rooms, which still contain the vast majority of their historic furnishings. More recently, the modest “below stairs” has become a reason to visit on its own.

The food storage and preservation room at Maymont.  (NMSC photo)

The food storage and preservation room at Maymont. (NMSC photo)

Servants were essential to running large, Gilded Age houses like Maymont and the National Park Service’s Vanderbilt Mansion.  The foundation and staff at Maymont have made servant life a fundamental part of the history that visitors learn about. The servant population in Richmond was different than that found in houses farther north – at Maymont nearly all were African American while in the north they were largely northern European immigrants. Our tour was led by Dale Wheary, director of historical collections and programs. She took us through the “below stairs” area and we were very impressed with the level of scholarship and time that had been put into restoring and furnishing the various rooms including sleeping quarters, pantry, and kitchen. My personal favorite room was the wine cellar. When I saw it, I imagined lavish parties upstairs and a busy time for the servants below stairs; it really brought Maymont to life for me.

The wine cellar and alcohol storage at Maymont. (NMSC photo)

The wine cellar and alcohol storage at Maymont. (NMSC photo)

Aside from the wonderful furnishings, there were interactive exhibits that were informative and well suited for children and adults who learn through doing, like me. Interactives are often perceived to be cost prohibitive pieces of technology that can become obsolete in a decade, but at Maymont they are much technologically simpler and still very effective. It is important to remember that not all visitors learn best by a guided tour, sometimes they need to interact. This is valuable knowledge that we can use when we’re thinking about how to interpret historic sites in the Northeast Region of the National Park Service.

I loved the interactives throughout the restored

I loved the interactives throughout the restored “below stairs” space! (NMSC photo)

As someone who frequently visits historic houses, I am always fascinated by new interactive approaches to interpretation and I love to learn about people that history may have previously overlooked. At Maymont, I really got a sense of what life was like for the entire household, especially the people who worked to keep the home running smoothly. It was also a great case study for the direction that historic houses are heading in the 21st century. Thank you to Dale and the staff of Maymont for welcoming us and giving us a wonderful tour! For more information, visit Maymont’s website or read “From Morning to Night: Domestic Service in Maymont House and the Gilded Age South” by Elizabeth O’Leary.


O’Leary, Elizabeth, “From Morning to Night:Domestic Service in Maymont House and the Gilded Age South,” University of Virginia Press, 2003.

Maymont Foundation Website –

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The More Things Change…Finding the Familiar in the Archeological Record

Daily life has changed a lot for Americans throughout the past few centuries.  Innovations in the fields of communication, technology, and transportation have drastically transformed many aspects of everyday living.  In the 18th century, letters could take weeks or even months to reach their recipients.  News was often obsolete by the time it was received.  Today, we text and email one another constantly and get impatient when we don’t get an instant response.  We probably cannot understand the level of darkness that came with nightfall in the 18th century.  Today, we awake in the night and flip a switch to instantly light up the room.  Many of us leave a light on at night for our children or make use of nightlights.  Imagine how different the nighttime experience was for children hundreds of years ago!  Today, we pop a load of laundry in the washing machine and forget about it until it’s time to move it into the dryer an hour later.  Laundry a couple of hundred years ago was an exhausting, all-day affair.

Young child navigating the dark.

Young child navigating the dark. “Who’s There?” by Thomas Waterman Wood, late 19th century. Image found in At Home: The American Family 1750-1870 by Elisabeth Donaghy Garrett.

Sometimes as archeologists we see evidence of these daily details that have been lost to innovation.  Here in the NMSC archeology lab we’ve encountered material evidence of early cooking and dining, gas and kerosene lighting, and even messaging by carrier pigeon!  We recognize and appreciate these artifacts as vestiges of the past that can help to illuminate the way people used to live. Despite monumental changes that have made our lives easier (although arguably not simpler), there are aspects of our daily lives that are strikingly similar.  Every now and then, we come across an artifact in the lab that reminds us how much certain things have not changed.


We are always excited to find personal objects like eyeglasses in the collections we work with.  As someone who relies daily on glasses, I hold tremendous appreciation for the personal and essential nature of a pair of eyeglasses.  Losing your glasses can be, depending on your eyesight, an inconvenience or a disabling crisis.  Finding them in an archeological collection makes us wonder about the poor soul whose glasses went missing many years ago. Eyeglasses are one great example of an artifact that has not changed much over the past couple of hundred years.  Many historians date the first eyeglasses to 13th-century Italy.  Early examples were held in front of the eyes or balanced on the nose and were used by monks and scholars.  Glasses including the side or temple pieces that rest over the ear – like those we wear today – were first advertised in 1728.  There were certainly stylistic changes…for much of the 1800s, for example, eyeglasses were considered a sign of old age and frailty, so people carried scissor spectacles or lorgnettes instead of wearing eyeglasses.  The basic form, however, has not changed much.

Consider this portrait of Thomas Earle, painted in 1800.  Earle’s breeches, stockings, and stock are familiar to us as key elements of late 18th– or early 19th-century fashion, but not as anything comparable to our own style of dress.  His eyeglasses, however, look a lot like mine.  You might see glasses that look like this in a 1960s photograph, or on the face of a passerby on the sidewalk this afternoon.  Of everything Thomas Earle is wearing in this portrait, his glasses say to me, Hey, we’re not that different.

Portrait of Thomas Earle showing his eyeglasses.  By Ralph Earl, 1800.  Image found in

Portrait of Thomas Earle showing his eyeglasses. By Ralph Earl, 1800. Image found in Ralph Earl: The Face of the Young Republic by Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser.


Another artifact that we repeatedly recognize in the lab as similar to its modern counterpart is the thimble.  We encounter thimbles fairly frequently here in the lab, and they usually look a lot like the thimble that I use at home to sew renegade buttons back on.  Metal thimbles were in use in Europe by the 9th century, and brass ones were common by medieval/post-medieval times.  Thimbles have several basic parts, as identified in this diagram from Mary Beaudry’s book, Findings:  The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing.  All working thimbles have indentations which facilitate the user pushing the needle through the fabric.  The size of a thimble and of its indentations can provide clues as to who was using it and the type of task for which it was intended.

Parts of a thimble, as illustrated in Mary Beaudry's book Findings:  The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing.

Parts of a thimble, as illustrated in Mary Beaudry’s book Findings: The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing.

During my time in the archeology lab, I have encountered numerous brass thimbles with hammered indentations; this type is fairly ubiquitous on North American historical sites.  Production techniques evolved over time and resulted in minor changes in the appearance of the thimble (which can be helpful for dating purposes).  Some thimbles could be elaborately decorated, especially 18th– and 19th-century parlor thimbles, which exuded status and could be made of gold, silver, porcelain, mother-of-pearl, tortoiseshell, or jewels, among other extravagant materials.  (Beaudry 2006)  However, the thimbles that most Americans used for their everyday tasks were the brass ones that show up so frequently on archeological sites (Hume 1969), and that resemble pretty closely the one I keep in my sewing bin at home.

Brass thimbles from NPS archeological collection.  Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

Brass thimbles from NPS archeological collection. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.


When we encountered this artifact in the lab, we were able to identify it fairly confidently because of our familiarity with its shape and form.  I’ll bet most people could see this object and know what it is, because they have something a lot like it in the junk drawer at home.  Like thimbles, shears and scissors are utilitarian objects that have not changed much over time.

Shears from NPS archeological collection.  Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

Shears from NPS archeological collection. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

Shears – 6 inches or more in length, with a small handle for the thumb and a larger handle for the other 4 fingers – were in use by the Iron Age, about 1000 B.C.  Scissors – less than 6 inches in length with two small, matching handles – were first introduced in Europe around the 6th or 7th century, and were in general use there by the 13th or 14th century. Scissors differed slightly according to intended use.  Sewing scissors, barbers’ scissors, and culinary scissors, for example, have distinct diagnostic qualities.  Sewing scissors varied stylistically in the 19th century, with different bow and shank styles coming in and out of fashion. (Beaudry 2006)  This portrait of Mrs. Ebenezer Porter, ca. 1804, shows her lace-making scissors.  All of these variations can be helpful in determining the date and function of a pair of scissors.  Despite these differences, however, throughout the centuries of its use, a pair of scissors has remained recognizable as exactly that: a pair of scissors.  As the saying goes, If it’s not broken…

Portrait of Mrs. Ebenezer Porter showing her lace-making scissors.  By Ralph Earl, 1804.  Image found in Ralph Earl:  The Face of the New Republic by Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser.

Portrait of Mrs. Ebenezer Porter showing her lace-making scissors. By Ralph Earl, 1804. Image found in Ralph Earl: The Face of the New Republic by Elizabeth Mankin Kornhauser.


Ivor Noel Hume.

U.S. half- and one-cent copper and copper-alloy coinage from A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America by Ivor Noel Hume.

One final example of a historic object that we recognize from our own lives is the coin.  Clearly, coins have witnessed a great deal of evolution throughout the years.  The type of currency in circulation has changed, and specific types of coins have changed in their material composition and decorative styles.  Do you have a penny in your wallet right now?  I do…a few, in fact.  The first American copper cent was issued by U.S. federal authority in 1787.  The first regular issue of cents by the U.S. mint occurred in 1793.  (Hume 1969)  This image of U.S. half- and one-cent copper and copper-alloy coinage can be found in Ivor Noel Hume’s A Guide to Artifacts of Colonial America.

We encountered an example of the Coronet type cent (number 6 in Hume’s book) while processing an archeological collection here in the lab.  Although clearly different from the pennies in my wallet, they are in many ways the same.  After hundreds of years, a penny is still a penny.  What you can get for your penny has clearly changed, but we continue to use one-cent copper-based pennies as a valid form of currency.

1812 Coronet penny from  NPS archeological collection.  Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

1821 Coronet penny from NPS archeological collection. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

It is amazing to me that, despite all of the changes that have accompanied the coin throughout its course in history, we continue to use coins on a daily basis.  What began in the 7th century B.C. as a metal disc conveying monetary value remains exactly that today.  No matter how inefficient it may be, no matter how I may be cursed by the store clerk and the customers waiting in line behind me, I can still count out dimes, nickels, and pennies to pay for my breakfast at the coffee shop or my basket of groceries at the supermarket.

This is just a small sample of artifacts we have come across in our work that remind us of things we use in our own daily lives.  Despite the many ways in which our world has changed, these items have basically withstood the test of time.  There are many other examples that we have not highlighted here.  Take toys, for example.  Chances are you’ve never heard of a whirligig.  (See our previous blog post if you’re curious!)  On the other hand, this domino that we processed from an early 19th-century archeological site looks just like the dominoes in my son’s toy box.

Domino from NPS archeological collection.  Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

Domino from NPS archeological collection. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

Working with artifacts in the NMSC archeology lab allows us a rare glimpse into the everyday lives of early Americans.  One part of my job that I particularly enjoy is solving the mystery of the unknown artifact.  I love to start with an object that is foreign to me, pull out a book about 18th-century ceramics, Civil War metal, 19th-century lighting, or early 20th-century celluloid, and end up with a diagnostic artifact that adds to our understanding of the past.  (Case in point:  the aforementioned whirligig.)  As exhilarating as it is to make these identifications, it is in many ways just as exciting to come across something wholly familiar.  A penny, a pair of scissors…familiar objects like these remind us how much certain things have not changed, and help us feel an integral connection to our past.  And isn’t that what archeology is all about?


Beaudry, Mary C.  Findings:  The Material Culture of Needlework and Sewing.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 2006.

Garrett, Elisabeth Donaghy.  At Home:  The American Family 1750-1870.  New York:  Henry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers, 1990.

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

Kornhauser, Elizabeth Mankin.  Ralph Earl:  The Face of the Young Republic.  New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1991.

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It Wasn’t Easy Being Green: Irish Artifacts from the Boott Mill

Growing up in Massachusetts, I was well aware of my frequently mentioned–though quite distant—Irish heritage.  My grandfather, Eddie McInerny, was my link to my Irish legacy, and it was a big source of pride in my family.  Like many Bostonians, I view St. Patrick’s Day is a major holiday and have fond memories of going to the Boston St. Patrick’s Day parade as a young child.  You can imagine my excitement after finding two possible Irish-American artifacts in the Boott Mill Boarding House collection from Lowell National Historical Park (LOWE).

The Irish began immigrating to America in large numbers during the 1840’s, but had been coming in lesser numbers for well over a hundred years due to earlier famines and disease outbreaks.  Historians cite many reasons for the sudden jump in immigration, but the major reason for the mid-nineteenth-century boom was the great potato famine, which began in 1845 and ended around 1852.  Because of the famine, approximately 1 million people emigrated from Ireland to America and a handful of other countries including England, Canada, and Australia.

When Irish immigrants got to America, they needed jobs.  Their arrival coincided with the opening of textile mills in the Northeast.  The Lowell Boott Mill opened in 1835 and was one of the major opportunities for newly arriving immigrants.  While we were cataloging the Lowell Boott Mill Boarding House archeology collection, we came across two artifacts that could have belonged to Irish immigrants who worked in the mill and lived at the boarding house.  The first one is a glass button with a painted green four-leaf clover on it.


Glass button with painted four-leaf-clover motif from LOWE archeology collection. NMSC photo.

The three-leaf clover, or shamrock, is for many the symbol of Ireland.  The link between the shamrock and Ireland goes back to St. Patrick when the three leaves were linked to the Holy Trinity.  The three leaves are also said to represent faith, hope, and love.  The word “shamrock” comes from an Irish word, seamróg, which is the diminutive form of “summer plant,” and refers specifically to a three-leaf clover.  Joseph Piercy elaborates in his book “Symbols: A Universal Language,” that the four-leaf clover is not the same thing as a shamrock, but that it is seen as a symbol of good luck in Ireland. Wearing or using an artifact with a three- or four-leaf clover could have meant many things for the wearer.

The second artifact has shamrocks on it, the symbol of Ireland.  The clay pipe reads “Erin” on one side and …“One” on the other.  Unlike the glass button, we can definitively link this object to Ireland.  Aside from having Ireland’s symbol the shamrock on it, the pipe mentions “Erin,” which is the word for Ireland in the Irish language.


Clay pipe from LOWE archeology collection. “ERIN” and shamrock motif stamped onto bowl. Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

In the NMSC archeology lab, we encounter clay pipes–both bowl fragments and stem fragments–frequently.  The majority of these clay pipe fragments are undecorated, but every once in a while, we come across a unique pipe that can give us information about the person who bought and used it.  (If you follow our blog, perhaps you remember a previous post about a very special Pipe With Personality!)  The pipe from the Lowell Boott Mill shows the user’s link to Ireland.  Native Bostonians in the 1840s were largely of English descent.  As a group they did not particularly welcome the tens of thousands of Irish arriving and seeking jobs and shelter.  The “Erin” pipe from the Boott Mill may have represented Irish pride and resolve in a time of anti-Irish sentiment.

As a museum technician in the NMSC Archeology Lab, I am lucky to see thousands of artifacts from many wonderful sites in the Northeast Region of the National Park Service.  Sometimes, it is nice to take a step back and focus on one or two objects in a collection and think about the people they may represent.  In this case, perhaps the “Erin” clay pipe was used by a proud Irishman who wished to proclaim his native culture in a time of discrimination.  Perhaps the four-leaf-clover button was worn by a young Irish woman seeking good fortune amidst the opportunities of this industrial city.  We cannot know for certain the stories represented by these two artifacts, but the possibilities are what make my job exciting.  Through objects, we get a chance to learn about people from the past who may not make it into our history books, and this is exactly what these two objects do for me.

From everyone here at NMSC, we wish you a Happy St. Patrick’s Day!


Ayto, Eric G.  Clay Tobacco Pipes.  Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire, UK: Shire Publications Ltd, 2002.

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

Piercy, Joseph.  Symbols; A Universal Language.  Published by Michael O’Mara , 2013.

Wisniewski, Debra J.  Antique & Collectible Buttons: Identification & Values.  Paducah, KY: Collector Books, 1997.

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I Left My Heart in a National Park: NPS Sites We Love

“I love that place!”  Chances are, you’ve heard that phrase – and used it yourself – numerous times.  What makes us love certain places?  Do we feel a personal connection to the history of a place?  Do we find inspiration or serenity in a particular landscape?  Or is it something indescribable, something we can’t put into words, but just feel?  Here at the Northeast Museum Services Center, we are privileged to work with national parks across the Northeast Region that vary significantly in terms of place.  We work on-site at historic rowhouses in urban settings, quiet farmhouses in the countryside, and grand Victorian mansions with formal gardens.  In honor of Valentine’s Day, allow us to share with you some of parks we love, and why. 

Sara Wolf, Director – Weir Farm National Historic Site

My father was an artist — a painter.  I remember spending many happy hours in his studio as a child creating exuberant messes in the name of art.  Walking into the Weir studio with its remnants of the smells of oil paints and turpentine instantly transports me back to that time and fills me with joy.  And that is why I love Weir Farm National Historic Site.

Weir Farm National Historic Site.  (Image source:  Weir Farm National Historic Site website -

Weir Farm National Historic Site. (Image source: Weir Farm National Historic Site website –

Laurel Racine, Senior Curator – Shenandoah National Park

I have loved Shenandoah National Park since I was a kid.  My family’s road trips focused heavily on the highways of the East Coast with relatives’ houses at the end of each drive.  It was such a relief when my parents would get off the interstate and drive more slowly under the canopy of trees along Skyline Drive with its tunnels, vistas, stone walls, and visitor centers.  If we were lucky, we would stop at Luray Caverns outside the park with its colorful caves and gift shop only a child could love.  Over the years I have seen the Drive in full leaf and shattered and broken after winter ice storms only to appear rejuvenated the next time I visited.  Nature’s resilience is amazing, if not boundless.

Shenandoah has such romantic place names.  Who wouldn’t want to go to Skyland, Panorama, or Pinnacles?  The stories are intriguing as well:  the early mountain residents, President Hoover and the Secret Service in fishing cabins on the Rapidan River, and the CCC boys building Skyline Drive.

Early in my NPS career I worked on many projects at Shenandoah and came to love it for what I considered its parky-ness:  the fee stations, lodges, campgrounds, stables, trails, and fireside chats.  As I drove on remote fire roads, I would think, “Now this is what it’s like to work for the Park Service.”  I was responding to the immersion in the landscape, the ability to lose myself in the trees while technically working.  When I would make the frequent drives from Dulles to the park, a smile would break across my face every time I saw the Blue Ridge Mountains in the distance.  Virginia is not home but I always had a sense of returning somewhere familiar and special.

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park.  (Image source:  NPS Digital Image Archives/Wikimedia Commons)

Skyline Drive, Shenandoah National Park. (Image source: NPS Digital Image Archives/Wikimedia Commons)

Nikki Estey, Museum Technician – Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site

Having grown up in Massachusetts, I have always been fascinated with local New England history, specifically the Colonial and Early Republic periods.  I can’t get enough Georgian architecture, federal furniture, and eighteenth-century ceramics!  So, it may come as a surprise that my favorite National Park Service site is Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site in Buffalo, New York.  When I first visited, I didn’t know what to expect from the house that was used briefly to swear in our 26th President after the assassination of President McKinley in 1901.  Upon arriving, I saw a beautiful Greek revival home and interactive exhibits that immersed me in the history of the period.  Not only do you learn about the events that took place in Buffalo in September of 1901, you also learn about politics, the fight for equality, economics, popular culture, the formation of the National Parks, and the many accomplishments of Theodore Roosevelt during his presidency.  I learned so much and loved how the interactive exhibits worked with so many different learning styles.   I am looking forward to visiting again in the future!

Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site.  (Image source:  Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site website -

Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site. (Image source: Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural Site website –

Alicia Paresi, Curator – Thomas Edison National Historical Park

I have had more than one crush on a Victorian house, but I can honestly say that the first time I saw Glenmont, it was love at first site!  Thomas Edison National Historical Park is a spectacular site that contains the laboratories and artifacts that span Edison’s sixty-year career as an inventor, manufacturer, businessman, and private citizen.  But it’s his private home that steals my heart!   The New Jersey estate, known as Glenmont, was purchased by Thomas Edison in 1886 for his new bride Mina Miller.

For me, the glorious architecture, jeweled windows, furniture suites, Persian rugs, and eclectic mix of decorative arts transform this mansion into a cozy home perfect for creating memories with family and friends.   Edison once said that the mansion was “…a great deal too nice for me, but isn’t half nice enough for my little wife.” Now THAT is true romance!

Glenmont in the spring.  (NPS photo courtesy of Thomas Edison National Historical Park website -

Glenmont in the spring. (Image source:  Thomas Edison National Historical Park website –

Jessica Costello, Museum Specialist – Petersburg National Battlefield, City Point Unit

I first visited the City Point Unit of Petersburg National Battlefield almost ten years ago as part of a team writing a Collection Management Plan, and have been in love ever since.  City Point is a peninsula situated at the confluence of the James and Appomattox Rivers in Hopewell, Virginia.  Appomattox Manor, the beautiful home standing there today, was built in 1763 by Richard Eppes.  This site has witnessed thousands of years of activity by Native Americans, as well as the efforts of generations of the Eppes family to build up their plantation and establish themselves as elite members of society.  During the Civil War, Union General Grant established City Point as his headquarters during the Siege of Petersburg, and it transformed into a busy city teeming with soldiers.  The history of this site is rich, fascinating, and monumental in terms of our nation’s past.

What I find so special about City Point is the way it can hold so many amazing, important stories, and yet present such a calming, tranquil, unassuming air.  At Appomattox Manor, I can stand in front of the 18th-century house and look past huge magnolia trees to the two wide rivers coming together down below.  I can walk between the kitchen house, smoke house, and vivid crepe myrtle trees, and literally feel time standing still.  Every time I have been to City Point, I have been invited by the quietude and serenity of the site to relax, breathe deep, and soak in the natural beauty it has to offer and the incredible stories it has to tell.

app manor

Appomattox Manor, City Point, Petersburg National Battlefield. (NMSC photo)

Jennifer McCann, Museum Specialist – Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site

The NPS Northeast Region site I love is Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site. Aside from it’s stunning location in the Hudson River Valley, the Vanderbilt Mansion is an intriguing house with fascinating stories. Designed by McKim, Mead and White, the Mansion was a vacation home for Frederick W. and Louise Vanderbilt at the turn of the 20th century. The Mansion has incredibly beautiful historic furnishings, artwork, and architectural details. If you visit, make sure you check out the drain pipes under the bathroom sinks…no, really! After the Vanderbilts had discontinued using the place, the Secret Service used the Mansion to house agents and staff, due to its proximity to President Franklin Roosevelt’s home, Springwood, just down the road. Roosevelt himself suggested that the house become part of the National Park Service in 1940.

Details of a sink at Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site.  (NMSC photo)

Details of a sink at Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site. (NMSC photo)

Margaret Welch, Archivist – Longfellow House Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site

Reverend Samuel Longfellow.  (Image source:  Longfellow House and Washington's Headquarters National Historic Site)

Reverend Samuel Longfellow. (Image source: Longfellow House and Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site)

That moment in which the hero/heroine realizes that he/she has found the “right one” is a highlight of romantic comedies.  I was fortunate enough to have that moment in realizing that I had been hired for the “right” job.  I knew the photographic collection of the Longfellow House Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site had extraordinary significance and historical integrity when I was hired to catalog it in February 2001.  But I never imagined that I would have a personal connection to its archives.  During a survey with NMSC and Longfellow staff in March of that year, I happened to come across a letter by the Reverend Samuel Longfellow, younger brother of Henry Wadsworth, with the following passage written in the mid 1860s:

I stayed at a pretty place called Curzon’s Mills where [there] is an old fashioned house under fine old trees & on the banks of a little stream bearing       the poetic name the “the Artichoke.”  And when I came away Miss Curzon rowed me up     the river … among the yellow water lilies.

Well, Miss Curzon is one of my ancestors, and my sisters and I now own the “old fashioned house” by the Artichoke River some one hundred and fifty years afterwards.  The “yellow water lilies” (spatterdocks) still bloom on the river in the summer.  And I knew that I had found “my” job.

"Old Fashioned House" by Artichoke River.  Courtesy photo.
“Old Fashioned House” by Artichoke River. Courtesy photo.

Well, there you have it – some of the NPS sites that we have fallen in love with during our years on staff at NMSC.   Theodore Roosevelt, a great champion of our national parks, first visited the Badlands of North Dakota as a young man in 1883.  Theodore Roosevelt National Park was later established there in 1947.  Of his first visit to this desolate, beautiful landscape, Roosevelt said, “and so began the great romance of my life.”  It is our hope that you may find in your national parks a place that you connect with, that inspires you, that you love.  Happy Valentine’s Day from NMSC!

Source for information on Glenmont:

Roosevelt quote found at

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The Curator’s Role in Crowd-Pleasing Events, Part 4: Reversing “Bad Habits” in a Positive Way

Have you been busy these last couple of weeks decorating your historic house museum and planning your seasonal event?  We hope that our holiday series has been informative and helpful.  This fourth and final post of the series deals with recognizing and reversing bad habits that may have become ingrained in your holiday preparations. In this post, Patricia West McKay, Curator at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, relates the positive changes she has made to the site’s long-beloved holiday event.  As illustrated in this post, a few changes can make a world of difference for the sake of preservation, and need not lessen visitors’ enjoyment of the festivities.

[The following post written by Patricia West McKay.]

When I arrived in 1998 as the new curator at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site I inherited a rich ahistorical tradition focused in the former president’s nineteenth-century home, Lindenwald, including food, flowers, an illumination of seventy burning candles, and scores of visitors brushing up against the 1840s scenic Zuber wallpaper. This holiday event was long standing and loved by staff and visitors alike so bringing it in line with curatorial best practices presented significant challenges.

We first approached the accuracy of the event by emphasizing its relationship with Van Buren’s December 5 birthday rather than its definition as a “Christmas” event.  This has not altogether eliminated the perception of the event as being related to the holiday period and the Kinderhook Garden Club still tends in this direction, but fortunately the abundant presence of poinsettias at the event has a basis in the history of the site.  Joel Poinsett, Van Buren’s Secretary of War and visitor to Lindenwald is credited with having introduced poinsettias to the United States.  We have added a special theme focus for the event (in 2014 this was the Van Buren grandchildren) to which the garden Club orients their decorations which adds interpretive content and distracts somewhat from the proclivity to a Christmas theme.

Parlor at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site decorated for the holidays.   (Photo by Bill Urbin, courtesy of Martin Van Buren National Historical Park.)

Parlor at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site decorated for the holidays. (Photo by Bill Urbin, courtesy of Martin Van Buren National Historical Park.)

Approaching the more egregious curatorial issues gradually, we first replaced the live flame candles with low-voltage electric candles, which look remarkably real, so the change satisfied those concerned with an authentic appearance. This  had the added benefit of reducing the number of staff and volunteers needed for the event, because with live flame we had to assign a “candle watcher” in every space in addition to the interpreter stationed there. Of course, we flat-out eliminated the use of actual food (from fruit to nuts, literally) as decorative elements. We purchased a stock of good quality reproduction food that we use instead. I designated a line-item in the curatorial budget for purchasing decorations for this event to ensure they are good quality and can be replaced when they look worn. Martin Van Buren NHS is located near Saratoga National Historical Park which holds a “candlelight” open house in October so we are able to share accoutrements between the two parks to stretch our budgets.

Our next step was to move away from the crowded open-house format to a reservations-based event featuring interpreters and volunteers in period costume in order to keep the number of visitors reasonable and well paced. We had worried about complaints but have not received any despite the event being fully booked.  people seem to understand a sold out show.

Costumed interpreter speaking to visitors in the office at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site.  Note the resin inside of the decanter on the desk, which mimics libation inside. (Photo by Bill Urbin, courtesy of Martin Van Buren National Historic Site.)

Costumed interpreter speaking to visitors in the office at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site. Note the electric candles near the back of the room, as well as the solid resin inside of the decanter on the desk, to suggest libation. (Photo by Bill Urbin, courtesy of Martin Van Buren National Historic Site.)

Perhaps the most difficult transition involved improving at least to some extent the historical accuracy of the floral arrangements produced by the Kinderhook Garden Club. At first, our dedicated volunteers mistook staff suggestions related to the historic period for criticism, which was counter-productive, so we took a different tack. We hired a horticultural historian, Ellen McClelland Lesser, to make a presentation on floral arrangements of the period and to serve as an adviser for the garden club. The volunteers  enjoyed the presentation and the subsequent floral arrangements are more in keeping with Martin Van Buren’s era, although this continues to be a struggle.

I admit that even over fifteen years later we have not been fully successful in aligning the December event at Martin Van Buren NHS with historical accuracy and every curatorial best practice, in part due to its immense popularity and the inexorable pull for the event to be construed as a Christmas party. However, we have made great progress and will continue to strive to do so.

To experience a current seasonal event at Martin Van Buren National Historic Site, we invite you to enjoy a brief video entitled Lindenwald Winter Celebration!

Series Conclusion

Despite the inherent bustle and fun of the holiday season, museum staff should stay focused on their institution’s mission through careful planning to safeguard the safety of visitors and cultural resources, maintain accuracy and historical integrity in all public programming, and, above all, maintain good communication and humor among staff members and volunteers. We welcome any additional comments, suggestions, or resources you would like to share.  Happy Holidays to you and yours from the Northeast Museum Services Center!

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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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