What’s Behind the Walls? Misfits and Magic in the Museum Collection

It seems that most parks we work with here in the Northeast Region have a few items in their museum collections that were “found under the floorboards during reconstruction,” or “discovered in the wall during rehab work,” or “found behind the chimney during restoration.”  These objects are usually dirty, broken, or torn.  Their provenance typically consists of cryptic notes scribbled at the time of discovery.  They’re often problematic for collections managers, who aren’t sure how to accession or catalog them.  They’re the misfits of the museum collection, and this blog post is dedicated to them.

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Concealed objects from museum collections at Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters NHS, Saratoga NHP, Adams NHP, and Minute Man NHP


Nothing makes me roll up my curatorial sleeves faster than an object found in a wall.  For one thing, there’s something exciting about finding an object that wasn’t meant to be found.  (This is why I went into archeology, after all.)  Just the words “discover” or “unearth” carry a certain appeal.  Holding a found object is like being privy to a hundreds-years-old secret.  What could be more delicious?

People lose things all the time.  Clumsiness or carelessness could certainly account for many of the objects that turn up under floorboards or in eaves of old houses.  A penny, a straight pin, or a button – sure!  But what about a boot, or a bottle?  Either of those things would have a harder time slipping through the cracks.  Some of the items we find behind the walls were not unintentionally lost, but rather, intentionally concealed for ritual purposes, or, magic.  Shoes, bottles, and other items were concealed within the fabric of homes and other structures to ward off witches and evil spirits and to ensure good luck.

Shoes were among the most commonly concealed items, owing in part to their intimate connection to the wearer.  They have been the subject of countless traditions and superstitions throughout history.  (Think of Dorothy’s ruby slippers, or Cinderella’s glass ones.)  One of my personal favorites is pictured in the 1881 painting below, which shows wedding guests throwing shoes at a newly married couple for good luck.  Ouch!  Shoes were expensive and hard to come by, especially for people of modest means.  Everyday shoes were worn to tatters, patched, and worn some more.  Have you ever noticed that as you wear them, your shoes take on the shape of your feet?  Pull off a pair of well-loved boots and you’ll see your feet echoed in them.  As shoe scholar June Swann so eloquently pointed out, shoes retain the shape – “the essence” – of the wearer (Swann 1996, p. 56).  It’s no coincidence that you rarely find a barely-worn concealed shoe.



better or worse highlights

For Better, For Worse, William Powell Frith, 1881.  (Highlight added by author)

That’s all well and good, but what about the witches?  Research conducted by yours truly several years ago identified a few distinct incentives for concealing footwear, including a builder’s good luck charm deposited during construction (or reconstruction), a mourning tradition (often associated with the death of a child), and a form of white magic intended to ward off witches and evil spirits.  crooked chimney pub croppedWhen serving the latter purpose, concealments were often positioned near vulnerable openings in a home – a doorway, window, or especially chimney– where people believed witches and evil spirits could easily enter.  Some chimneys in old houses have witch’s bends or witch’s crooks; they were deliberately built at a slant to prevent easy access by witches.  (Who wants to come to the Crooked Chimney Pub with me right now?!)  Swedish folklore tells of Easter Witches getting caught in people’s chimneys and prescribes burning certain woods to keep them out.  It turns out Santa isn’t the only one who uses the chimney…

witch and santa

Dating a concealed shoe can be helpful in determining the motive behind the concealment.  If the shoe dates to the time of a building’s construction or repairs, for example, a builder’s good luck charm seems a likely explanation.  If a small shoe dates to the time of a child’s untimely death in the home, perhaps it was concealed as an act of mourning.   If a shoe dates to the time of an epidemic or crisis in the family or community (and was found near an opening like a chimney), an antidote to witchcraft is quite possible.

Adams National Historical Park

This little boot was discovered with several other shoes and boots near the chimney flue of the John Adams Birthplace, part of the Adams National Historical Park in Quincy, Massachusetts.  It’s a Wellington boot dating to the 1820s, and has the name “George Curtis” penned inside its lining.  Shoemaker Adam Curtis and his family – including little George – lived in the house from 1821 to 1829.  The chimney location, shoemaker association, and dates that the Curtises occupied the house make this an interesting case with a few possibilities.  Were the shoes meant to protect the house against witches?  Were they meant as a time capsule, marking the end of the family’s work and residence there?  If only we could ask!


John Adams Birthplace (NPS photo); Wellington boot, ca. 1820s (photo by author)


Saratoga National Historical Park

Multiple shoes have been discovered within the fabric and around the foundation of the Schuyler House, part of Saratoga National Historical Park in Schuylerville, New York.  Because of this slipper’s hand-stitching, long, sharply pointed toe, and narrow waist, we can date this shoe to the turn of the 19th century, about 1795-1805.   Philip Schuyler II (grandson of the Revolutionary War hero General Schuyler) remodeled the house and moved in with his bride Grace around 1811.  Pointy-toed shoes was going out of fashion by 1811, to be replaced by a more subtle, oval toe.  Perhaps the young, stylish, newly married Grace Schuyler supplied her old, outdated slipper for good luck during the remodel?


Schuyler House, Saratoga National Historical Park (photo by author); shoe ca. 1795-1805 (photo courtesy of Sartoga NHP)


Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historical Park

This ladies’ slipper was found near the sill of the front archway at Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historic Site.  Its squared oval toe, heelless sole, and square vamp indicate a date of 1820s-1830s.  We cannot say who this slipper belonged to, but its location near the front archway/doorway suggests that it may have been concealed to protect a vulnerable entry point in the house.  LONG’s Museum Technician Kate Hanson Plass pointed out that the date of this shoe does not correspond to any major construction or repair of the house, implying that whoever concealed this slipper did so deliberately and with no small effort.


Longfellow House-Washington’s Headquarters National Historical Park (NPS photo); shoe ca. 1820-s1830s (photo courtesy of LONG staff)

Minute Man National Historical Park

These two shoes were discovered under the floorboards and between closet partitions (respectively) in the Maid’s Room at the Wayside, part of Minute Man National Historical Park in Concord, Massachusetts.  This room may have been used by the Alcott family as the girls’ room during their residence in the house from 1845-1852, and was used next as a maid’s room when the Hawthornes lived in the house during the 1850s and 60s.  The squared toes and lack of heel on both shoes indicate of date of 1830s, which means they were most likely worn and/or deposited by an earlier resident.  We’d love to know more about who may have been staying in or working on the room in those years.  Was the help at the Wayside in the 1830s particularly superstitious?  Sometimes the best questions are the hardest to answer!


The Wayside, Minute Man National Historical Park ( NPS photo); shoes ca. 1830s, (NPS photos)

So, what should you do if you uncover a concealed object during restoration?*  Document, document, document!  Take lots of notes and lots of pictures.  Your walls are like an above-ground archeological site, and like an archeological artifact, a concealed object loses its significance if disassociated from its found location.  And most importantly, remember to keep an open mind.  What may look like a dirty old shoe, might have quite a story to tell.  Your misfit could be magic!

*NPS folks out there, if you’re unsure of what to do with objects found in the walls, give us a call!

For further information:  Costello, Jessica.  Tracing the Footsteps of Ritual:  Concealed Footwear in America.  Historical Archaeology 48 (3).
Image of Swedish Easter Witch found:  http://karolsapple.blogspot.com/2009/04/easter-witches.html
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From the Archives: Pete Seeger Advocates for Protection of the Upper Delaware River

While recently cataloging archival records from Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River, NMSC’s Holly came across a fascinating exchange of letters.  The following blog post was written by Holly Hendricks.  

What can you discover hidden within park resource management records? Possibly the significant figures in the development of a park? In the early 1980s, Pete Seeger learned of a growing controversy with the protection of the Upper Delaware River and thus became a hidden part of creating Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River as a unit of the National Park Service.

Pete with Clearwater by Dona Crawford

Photo by Dona Crawford, courtesy of Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc.

Pete Seeger (1919-2014), best known as a beloved folksinger, left an incomparable mark on American music. After a brief stint at Harvard, he rose to fame performing with American folk group the Weavers, selling millions of albums worldwide. As a solo performer and storyteller, he found a dedicated following among youth with anti-war concerts and inspiring other performers such as the The Kingston Trio; Peter, Paul and Mary; and Bob Dylan.

Also a lifelong activist for a vast array of humanitarian and environmental causes, Seeger inspired generations of communities, schoolchildren, visitors and government officials to clean up the filthy, polluted Hudson River through the educational voyages of the environmental sloop Clearwater*.  Seeger noted, “My job is to show folks there’s a lot of good music in this world, and if used right, it may help to save the planet.”

In 1948 Seeger and his wife Toshi bought land along the Hudson River in Beacon, NY, just above the Tappan Zee Bridge, and began building a log home there.  As the pollution in the Hudson grew unchecked during ensuing decades, the distraught family saw raw sewage and toxic chemicals filling the waters, fish suffocating from lack of oxygen, and water color regularly matching the automotive paint being applied in nearby manufacturing plants.

In 1966, Seeger vowed to build a wooden boat to bring people together to reclaim the Hudson River through music and activism. With much help from friends and supporters, and funds raised by holding concerts, in 1969 the historic 106-foot replica of a Dutch sailing vessel left her Maine shipyard to travel through New York City to her permanent home in the Hudson River.  The sloop Clearwater is a sailing environmental classroom and a symbol of hope capable of instilling pride and neighborly connections among riverfront communities.

Through the efforts of friends and associates in the non-profit Hudson River Sloop Clearwater, Inc., numerous dockside concerts, on-board educational classroom activities and educational river trips have raised money and awareness about the plight of the river, supporting passage of the 1972 federal Clean Water Act, regulating pollutant discharge and requiring sewage treatment.

In 1983 Seeger learned that another New York river had become the subject of significant controversy.  The Upper Delaware River Protection Act of 1978 officially designated the Upper Delaware River as a component of the Wild and Scenic Rivers system, creating the Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River as a unit of the National Park Service.

upde aerial

Aerial view of Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River.  NPS photo.

While the act protected the river in many important ways, ensuring its future as a “wild and free-flowing river,” abutting landowners grew increasingly anxious about federal intervention, property rights and values, and restrictions on their own river use.

Responding to a request for comments on a draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Upper Delaware, Seeger emphasized the importance of National Park Service stewardship and cautious planning:

Seeger letter top

As a Hudson River abutter and landowner, he argued for both protection of the resource and enlistment of local landowners as allies:

seeger letter bottom

Superintendent John Hutzky appreciated Seeger’s measured response at a time when many commenters fearfully demanded deauthorization of the Upper Delaware as a National Wild and Scenic River.  Hutzky thanked Seeger and acknowledged the important work done by Clearwater, noting that the shallow depth of the Upper Delaware precluded an actual visit from the sloop:


Everyone who enjoys New York’s clean, beautiful and swimmable rivers today can thank Pete Seeger and many others who envisioned and fought for clean waters for future generations.

In 2018, archivists at the Northeast Museum Services Center are processing and cataloging the park resource management records that contain the correspondences with Seeger. While many of the long-standing park staff know about the significance of Seeger’s role in protecting the riverway, the NMSC archives team identified the materials as the 40th anniversary approached in April 2018 and found that this story was not widely known.


Archival documents from the collection of the Upper Delaware Scenic & Recreational River, a unit of the National Park Service.

*For information on the Hudson River Sloop Clearwater: https://www.clearwater.org/about/the-clearwater-story/  (please note, this is not a NPS website)



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Hamilton, Hamlet, and Philip II: Maintaining Lifestyle and Legacy at the Schuyler House

“Take Philip Schuyler, the man is loaded!”  So sings Aaron Burr on Broadway in the pop culture phenomenon Hamilton.  The Philip Schuyler referenced in the play is General Philip Schuyler, one of four Major Generals of the Continental Army under George Washington during the American Revolution.  Alexander Hamilton married Elizabeth Schuyler, General Schuyler’s second daughter.  And, Burr was not wrong –  Schuyler was not only a Revolutionary hero, but also a prominent, successful, and wealthy landowner in late 18th-century Albany County, New York.  His country home (once part of his vast estate at Saratoga) is now preserved and open to the public as part of Saratoga National Historical Park (SARA) in Schuylerville, New York.

schuyler loc cropped

General Philip Schuyler.  Painted by J. Trumbull, engraved by T. Kelly.  Image:  Library of Congress.

In 2013, NMSC archeologists rehoused a large collection of artifacts recovered during systematic excavations at the Schuyler House.  This collection was truly swoon-worthy (and swoon we did!):  beautiful, nearly complete ceramic vessels; matching sets of 200-year old wineglasses; goffering irons and carrier pigeon messages.  Some of the objects date to the time of General Philip Schuyler’s residence, but many others date to the time of his grandson, Philip Schuyler II.

When Saratoga National Historical Park emerged victorious in our second annual Museum Madness competition this past March, NMSC staff traveled to Saratoga to meet with park curator Christine Valosin and discuss featuring the SARA museum collection on our social media platforms.  Compared to his renowned grandfather, not much has been written about Philip Schuyler II.  When Christine suggested a blog post about him and the artifacts associated with him from the Schuyler House archeology collection, we jumped at the chance to revisit some old and beautiful friends.


NMSC’s Jessica (author) with SARA curator Christine Valosin.  NMSC photo.

Today, the Schuyler House sits amidst idyllic, shady grounds.  When we visited this past May, it was a lush, quiet place, with trees blowing in the breeze and the quiet rush of Fish Creek in the background.  The stillness of the place, however, is in some ways a bit misleading.  In traveling the Northeast you’ve probably seen the roadside signs pointing out that “History Happened Here.”  This place deserves one with italics, exclamation points, and flashing lights (don’t worry, we’re not proposing such a thing).  The story of the Schuyler House – or, the three Schuyler Houses – is remarkable.  The story of Philip Schuyler II and the artifacts he left behind can only be understood through the lens of history, tradition, and family legacy that accompanies this special place.


Schuyler House at Saratoga National Historical Park.  NMSC photo.


The Schuyler House and Legacy

The first Schuyler House was built around 1720 by Johannes Schuyler and burned to the ground during a French and Indian attack in 1745, killing Johannes’s son Philip Schuyler (uncle of the Revolutionary War general) and several other local residents who had taken refuge there.

Upon inheriting the property, Philip Schuyler (the future Revolutionary War general) built a mansion on the site where the current house stands today.  He established saw, grist, and flax mills on the estate, which buzzed for years with successful industry and commerce.  Schuyler and his ventures were well-regarded in the community.  One local resident called him “the oracle of our neighborhood.” (Brandow 261)   Just prior to his surrender to the Army of the United States in October of 1777, British General Burgoyne spent a few nights in Schuyler’s Saratoga house, wining and dining by candlelight while his troops bunked on the cold ground outside.  A few days later he ordered it and the surrounding outbuildings and fields burned to the ground.

The current Schuyler House was built by General Philip Schuyler in 1777, almost immediately after the destruction of his 1767 home.  It was completed in about a month, a testament to the resilience and determination of the Revolutionary spirit.  By 1787, General Schuyler’s eldest son and heir, John Bradstreet Schuyler (a Schuyler “brother” who did not make it into the play) was living in the house with his wife.  John died in the house in 1795, when his young son Philip Schuyler II was only seven years old.  After spending his boyhood away at school and college, Philip II chose to return to his ancestral homeland to raise his own children and carry on his family’s legacy of patriotism, industry, and hospitality.  These three themes are represented in the archeological record of the Schuyler House.

Philip II

Philip II followed in his grandfather’s enterprising and industrial footsteps when he took over the family estate in the early 19th century.  He lived with his family at the Schuyler House from 1811 until 1837.  He ran grist, saw, and wool fulling mills on Fish Creek, established a large cotton mill, operated a successful whiskey distillery and a large working farm, and promoted the construction of the Champlain Canal to carry manufactured goods from Schuylerville to New York.  (He was busy!)  Early 19th-century artifacts found near the Schuyler House indicate that Philip II’s commercial success allowed him and his family to live in comfort and high style.

According to historian John Brandow, “Philip Schuyler, 2d, and his charming wife maintained an ancient family reputation for hospitality.”  (304)  Brandow describes a constant stream of guests to the house, including President Martin Van Buren, a personal friend of Philip II.  Saratoga Springs was quickly becoming a popular destination for 19th-century Americans who wished to soak in the pleasant and rejuvenating springs.  Many visitors did not consider their trip complete without a stopover at the Schuyler House.  Brandow again:  “Dinner parties were frequently given here by the Schuylers at the then-fashionable hour of three or four o’clock.”  (307)  Complete sets of fine dishes and glassware found archeologically at the Schuyler House attest to the couple’s tradition of elegant entertaining.

philip schuyer 2 brandow p

Philip Schuyer II.  Image:  Brandow, The Story of Old Saratoga, p. 305.


The Collection

At risk of sounding corny here, the Schuyler House archeology collection knocked our socks off when we worked on it in 2013.  We typically process fragments of things, and wonder at what and where the rest of those things may be.  This collection was full of complete and nearly complete vessels.  We rehoused sets of blue and white Chinese export porcelain plates, purple transfer-printed toilet sets complete with soap dishes, and oh so many beautiful chamber pots!  In total, the collection includes over 10,000 artifacts that we packed carefully into 76 archival boxes.  Some of the material dates to the time of General Philip Schuyler, some to the Strover family that lived in the house after it passed out of the Schuylers’ hands in the late 1830s, and some to the time of Philip Schuyler II, his wife Grace, and their children.  These artifacts reflect the traditional family themes of patriotism, industrial and commercial success, and hospitality carried on by Philip II during his time in the house.


Early 19th-century artifacts from SARA archeology collection.  All photos by Norm Eggert for NMSC.


Dishes and Glassware

One of my favorite objects in the collection is a pearlware saucer with a transfer-printed design called “Lafayette at Franklin’s Tomb,” in which the Marquis de Lafayette visits the grave of Benjamin Franklin.  Lafayette came to America from France to fight with the colonists during the Revolutionary War.  Early 19th-century Americans were fiercely proud of their new nation and its heroes (including adopted founding father Lafayette!), and had the goods to prove it.  Patriotic symbols, scenes, and maxims were popular themes on dishes and other household items.  This saucer, and the pitcher in the collection that bears the same pattern, date to the time of his grand tour of America in 1824-1825.  The Marquis visited the Schuyler House in 1825.  Picture this:  Lafayette (at that point the sole surviving Major General of the Revolutionary War) sitting in the late General Schuyler’s parlor, shaking hands with his grandson, and sipping tea from a pearlware saucer.


The Schuyler House archeology collection includes several sets of fine teaware, dinnerware, and glassware.  This elegant porcelain teacup and matching saucer, for example, is among several of its kind.  We found this exact cup shape (look at the handles) in the 1820 shape book for the Spode factory, which was at that time known for its new and desirable bone china.  One of these vessels bears a four-digit number on its base, which we believe to be a pattern number.  It was common practice in Spode’s early days to mark pieces with only a pattern number, if at all.  If these pieces are Spode porcelain, the gilding along the edges is most likely real gold.  We read that Spode actually had a gold safe on site!  Make no mistake about it folks, this is fancy stuff.


This set of wineglasses from the Schuyler House collection dates to ca. 1780-1820, which fits perfectly with Philip II’s occupation of the house.  American painter Henry Sargent painted “The Dinner Party” in 1821, right around the time Philip and Grace were hosting their own mid-afternoon gatherings.  If you look closely, you can see wineglasses similar to these on the table and in the hands of the guests.


Gaming Pieces

The prosperity of the Philip Schuyler II family was not confined to the table.  Archeologists found dominoes and what we believe to be a backgammon playing piece, indicating that Philip II may have enjoyed leisure games with his family and/or guests.  Backgammon was popular among people of means in late 18th– and early 19th-America; Thomas Jefferson’s account books make reference to his own wins and losses in the 1770s.


Mrs. Schuyler

Several artifacts suggest that lady of the house Grace Hunter Schuyler enjoyed the latest fashions as well as domestic pursuits considered appropriate for her sex and high class.  The delicate sewing scissors were most likely used for sewing and embroidery, which every 19th-century lady loved, of course!  After much contemplation, we hypothesize that the rectangular buckle may be from a dress like the one pictured below.  In the 1820-30ss, fashionable women often wore dresses with sashes or belts ornamented with buckles in the front.  This buckle is brass; we wonder whether Mrs. Schuyler may have had others of gold or silver for special occasions?


Children’s Objects

This family portrait painted at the Schuyler House in 1824 pictures Philip and Grace Schuyler with five of their young daughters.  In this tranquil scene that denotes affluence and security, the young ladies’ dresses are trimmed with lace, and one reads a book while her sister plays the piano.  These little girls are visible in the archeological record as well, where early 19th-century miniature teasets and children’s dishes attest to their growing up with fashionable toys and the time and space to play with them.  (If you love this kitten plate as much as we do, read more about it in our 2012 blog post!)


Architectural Objects

Several wallpaper samples recovered at the Schuyler House date to the time of Philip II’s occupation.  According to research conducted by park curator Christine Valosin, he and his wife installed new wallpaper in their country home pretty frequently (about every five years or so!).  Historian John Brandow notes that Philip and Grace had new paper installed in the parlor in preparation for the marriage of his daughter, Ruth, in 1836.  The archeology collection includes this fragment of a pressed glass curtain pin.  Similar examples in the museum collection at Winterthur are dated to ca. 1825-1850.  This object could date to the time of the Strover family, who moved in after the Schuylers, but it could also represent Philip II’s effort to spruce up his parlor before his daughter’s wedding day.


Take Philip Schuyler II, the man was loaded!

Artifacts excavated at the Schuyler House suggest that Philip Schuyler II maintained the wealthy lifestyle of his grandfather while striving to sustain his family’s ideals of Revolutionary pride, industrial and commercial success, and social hospitality.  Philip II lost his estate when economic panic hit in 1837.  Historian John Brandow wrote in 1900 that when the Schuylers left Schuylerville, “we have ever since had ‘Hamlet’ with Hamlet left out.”  (310)  The property had been in the family for 135 years, and the legacy of the Schuylers was forever ingrained in the landscape, character, history of the area.  One of his daughters described Philip II weeping when he returned years later as a visitor instead of an owner.

One could argue that Hamlet without Hamlet (or Hamilton without Hamilton) would be a different story, but one full of interesting and worthy characters just the same.  The archeological record at the Schuyler House documents the lives of many individuals and families of various races, backgrounds, and economic means.  This collection has the potential to reveal information about black slaves working on the estate, laborers working in the mills and along the canal, domestic servants working behind the scenes to maintain the Schuylers’ fine quality of life, British and American soldiers during the American Revolution, and Native Americans inhabiting the area before and alongside the earliest Schuylers.  The story of Philip Schuyler II and his wife and children is but one of many stories waiting to be explored.

For information on visiting Saratoga National Historical Park, please call the Visitor Center at 518-670-2985 or check our website at www.nps.gov/sara or on Facebook and Twitter: @SaratogaNHP



Hamilton, Music and Lyrics by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Inspired by the book Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.

Brandow, John Henry.  The Story of Old Saratoga and History of Schuylerville.  Albany:  Brandow Printing Company, 1900.

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

Chernow, Ron.  Alexander Hamilton.  Penguin Books, 2005.

McCann, Jennifer.  Completion Report, Archeology Backlog Cataloging, Saratoga National Historical Park, 2013.

Spode Shape Book, 1820.  Spode Exhibition Online.  http://www.spodeceramics.com/pottery/ceramics/shape-book-index

Starbuck, David R.  The Schuyler House.  In The Saratoga Campaign:  Uncovering an Embattled Landscape.  William A. Griswold and Donald W. Linebaugh, eds.  University Press of New England, 2016.


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“Everything is Lafayette:” A Pearlware Saucer from Saratoga

When it comes to America’s founding fathers, I’ve always been a fan of Benjamin Franklin.  Despite his momentous achievements in early American politics, when I think of Franklin, I think first of fun and colorful history:  He discovered electricity with a kite!  He invented bifocals, and the glass harmonica!  He was popular with the French ladies!  He has, for some reason, always seemed uniquely relatable and human to me.  I agree with biographer Walter Isaacson’s assessment that Franklin “seems made of flesh rather than of marble…and he turns to us from history’s stage with eyes that twinkle from behind those newfangled spectacles.”  (p. 2)

franklin portrait gallery

Benjamin Franklin, Joseph Siffred Duplessis, 1785, National Portrait Gallery

Perhaps that’s why this saucer from the archeology collection at Saratoga National Historical Park has always been one of my favorite artifacts that I’ve come across at work.  It passed through our lab during a rehousing project back in 2013, and is one of many gorgeous and surprisingly intact ceramic vessels that were excavated from the Schuyler House property at Saratoga NHP.  It features a transfer-printed design of an elegant, early 19th-century figure seated before Franklin’s tomb.  The back of the saucer has a maker’s mark for Enoch Wood, a prolific 19th-century Staffordshire potter.  As I started to research this piece – which I thought would make a nice Facebook post on the anniversary of Franklin’s death on April 17 – I found a lot of really cool history attached to this saucer and its connection to other Revolutionary War figures.  And this, readers, is how blog posts are born!


Pearlware saucer (SARA 3376) from archeology collection at Saratoga NHP.  Photo by Norm Eggert for NMSC.

Those of you who love historic ceramics may recognize the above print as “Lafayette at Franklin’s Tomb.”   Enoch Wood was one of several English potters who catered to Americans’ fierce sense of patriotism in the early 19th century by producing transfer-printed dishes designed specifically for the American market.  The nation’s early heroes were popular themes on plates, teacups, and pitchers.


Now, we hope you’ll humor us with a game of Can You Spot the Differences?  (Or, in this case, difference?)  At first glance, these two saucers from the museum collection at Winterthur look nearly identical.  Both are Enoch Wood pieces, pearlware with a cobalt transfer-printed design reminiscent of that on the saucer from SARA.  Actually, only one of them is like the one found at the Schuyler House; the other has a slight but significant difference.  Click on the photo to enlarge; do you see it?


Pearlware saucers in the museum collection at Winterthur.

In the photo on the right, the tomb reads “Washington,” not “Franklin.”  Wood, in a stroke of marketing genius, produced two hugely popular designs by simply changing the name on the tomb.

In case you’re wondering, Franklin’s and Washington’s burials are not even remotely similar, and neither resembles the urn pictured in Wood’s transfer-printed design.  These inaccuracies, and the fact that Franklin’s name seems interchangeable with Washington’s in this print, lead me to believe that the central figure here is not the entombed, but rather, his visitor – the Marquis de Lafayette.


Franklin’s burial at Christ Church Burial Ground in Philadelphia; Washington’s Old Tomb at Mount Vernon.  (photo credits below)


Lafayette came to America from France to fight with the colonists against the British during the American Revolution.   He became a hero to Americans as he fought beside General George Washington and helped defeat General Cornwallis at Yorktown.  In her book about Lafayette in America, Anne C. Loveland states that he functioned as a “father figure to his adopted country:  a symbol of wisdom, authority, and benevolence, and above all, of the birth of the nation at the time of the Revolution.” (p. 83)

marquis de lafayette court versailles

Marquis de Lafayette, Joseph Désiré -Court, 1834, Musée National du Château de Versailles

In 1824, President James Monroe invited Lafayette to tour America as “the Nation’s Guest.”  By this time, Lafayette was known to be the last surviving Major-General of the American Revolution.  Americans in every state feted him with balls, parades, and general pomp and circumstance.  Throughout the thirteen months that he spent touring the nation, Americans were swept up in what can only be described as “Lafayette Mania.”  Material culture followed suit, hence the production of tea and tablewares decorated with Lafayette-themed prints like the saucer from the Schuyler House.

la fayatte welcoming parade NYC Fritsch 1844, NY public library digital collections

La Fayette Welcoming Parade, Fritsch, New York City, 1844.  New York Public Library Digital Collections

As it turns out, the dishes were only the tip of the iceberg!  Lafayette’s likeness was everywhere:  on plates, pitchers, glassware, washbasins, saltcellars, ribbons, gloves, cameos, engravings…the list goes on.  According to an 1824 article in the Saturday Evening Post, “Everything is Lafayette, whether it be on our heads or under our feet.  We wrap our bodies in Lafayette coats during the day, and repose between Lafayette blankets at night.”

(As I was reading about this, I thought of Beatlemania in the 1960s, or my own devoted accumulation of New Kids on the Block paraphernalia in the early 1990s…)

Museums across America preserve vestiges of the Lafayette craze.  I found gloves with Lafayette’s image in the collections at the MET, the Smithsonian, the New York Historical Society, Historic Deerfield, Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, and the Alice Miner Museum in upstate New York.  I read that the collection at Old Sturbridge Village has children’s shoes with Lafayette stencils on them (be still, my heart!).   The Marquis de Lafayette Collection at Lafayette College includes “more than eight hundred pieces related to Lafayette’s life, many of which are commemorative objects dating from his 1824-25 tour,” like commemorative doilies and a clothing brush with the bristles dyed to spell “Lafayette – 1825.”  (Lafayette College Special Collections website)

collage 2

Lafayette-themed material from various museum collections.  (photo credits below)

The Franklin saucer in the SARA collection is associated with Philip Schuyler II’s (1788-1865) occupation of the Schuyler House at Saratoga (Schuylerville), NY.  If only we could ask Mr. Schuyler about this piece and what it meant to him and his family.  Surely, as the grandson of a Revolutionary War general, Lafayette and his visit in the 1820s held special significance for him.  According to park curator Christine Valosin, Lafayette paid a visit to the Schuyler House during his American tour in 1825.  Did Mrs. Schuyler serve tea in her Lafayette wares during his visit?  Did the Schuylers buy the set afterwards as a commemorative gesture?  Either way, the significance of this pattern at this place gives me goosebumps.  Tying the piece to a nation-wide material culture phenomenon is equally as exciting.  For a couple of years, Lafayette inundated American pop culture.  The saucer from the Schuyler House represents this brief and fascinating time in American material culture history.


Schuyler House at Saratoga, NPS photo.




Isaacson, Walter.  Benjamin Franklin:  An American Life.  New York:  Simon and Schuster, 2004.

Loveland, Anne C.  Emblem of Liberty:  the Image of Lafayette in the American Mind.  Louisiana State University Press, 1971.

Magid, Barbara H.  “Commemorative Wares in George Washington’s Hometown.”  In Ceramics in America 2006.  Ed., Robert Hunter.  Note – diary entry found in this article.

Tales from the collection at The Alice T. Miner Museum.  Everything Is Lafayette: The Last General’s American Tour, 1824-25.  http://minermuseum.blogspot.com/2017/07/

Valosin, Christine.  Electronic communication, April 2018.


•Diary entry mentioned in Magid’s article in Ceramics in America.

•Newspaper article mentioned in Alice T. Miner Museum blog.

Additional photo credits:

•Franklin’s burial:  Wikimedia Commons/BernerAchim

•Lafayette material:  fan: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; single glove and tumbler: Metropolitan Museum of Art; pair of gloves: Historic Deerfield; pipe and plate: Lafayette College, Marquis de Lafayette Special Collections.


Posted in A bit of History | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Breathe Deeply: Sponges in Bottles at the Abiel Smith School

We’ve all heard of a message in a bottle, but what about a sponge in a bottle?  When we first came across a couple of them in the archeology collection from the Abiel Smith School site in Boston, we were a bit puzzled.  Were they sponge stoppers that sank down into the bottles?  Some sort of natural history specimens?  A little brainstorming and a bit of research revealed a more likely explanation, which led us to the strangely fascinating world of anesthesia history.  Now here’s a rabbit hole worth exploring!

There are two bottles with sponges in the Smith School collection.  Both are small medicinal-type bottles.  One is aqua glass, blown into a 2-part mold with a rolled-out finish and open pontil mark on the base.  The other is colorless glass, blown into a 3-part mold with a flared finish and sand/disk pontil mark.  These diagnostic traits date both bottles to the first half of the 19th century.  The pieces of natural sponge stuck inside indicate that they may have been used for inhaling ether or chloroform vapors.  Without getting too scientific here, allow us to explain.



Despite any romantic notions of the pre-industrial era, some things have undoubtedly gotten easier and more comfortable as we’ve progressed through history.  Case in point – surgery.  Consider the poor fellow in this aquatint from 1793, who is tied to a chair and restrained by several comrades as he undergoes the amputation of his leg.  The look on his face says it all:  pain, fear, horror.  At the time, efforts to control pain during surgical procedures included opium, alcohol, herbal extracts, and knocks to the head, all uncontrolled and unreliable techniques.

Five_surgeons_participating_in_the_amputation_Wellcome_L0034242   Rowlandson Wikimedia Commons.jpg
Five Surgeons Participating in the Amputation, Rowlandson, 1793.  Wellcome Library, London.


The anesthetic qualities of ether were discovered over several years by several individuals.  The first successful public demonstration of the use of ether during surgery was performed in 1846 by William Morton at what is now known as the Ether Dome in Massachusetts General Hospital – just a half-mile away from the Abiel Smith School.  On that notable day at the Ether Dome, Morton’s patient escaped the pain of surgery by inhaling the fumes from an ether-soaked sponge contained in a vaporizer.

First Operation Under Ether, by Robert C. Hinckley.  Boston Medical
Library in the Francis A. Countway Library of Medicine.


The vaporizer used during this famous procedure was created specifically for anesthesia:  a glass globe with two necks as pictured below.  As the use of ether (and quickly after, chloroform) became widespread, doctors invented more elaborate inhalers that could better control the concentration of ether delivered to the patient.  (Note the comfy-looking contraption modeled by this 19th-century lady.)  Despite the more sophisticated design of these medical devices, a sponge in a bottle could produce the same basic outcome of anesthetizing a patient, and was surely less expensive and easier to obtain.



According to a helpful anesthesia textbook we consulted, when ether or chloroform was placed in a closed container, some of the liquid molecules would evaporate to become vapor.  The bottle-sponge combination acted as a vaporizer by turning liquid ether or chloroform into vapor that a patient could inhale.  The sponge absorbed the liquid and the vapors evaporated off the sponge.  The sponge was also effective in containing the liquid so that patients were not accidentally inhaling liquid ether or chloroform.

The Abiel Smith School was an all-black school that opened in Boston in 1835 and closed as a segregated school in 1855 upon the integration of the city’s public schools.  The building continued being used as an integrated school until 1881 and had other uses afterwards, but the date of these bottles correspond perfectly to the school years.  You’re probably wondering what anesthesia was doing in a school setting, right?  Writing, arithmetic, and… surgery?

smith school


Abiel Smith School.  Photo-Museum of Afro-American History.



Not necessarily.  Even before it was used in surgery, ether was known as a potent pain reliever.  It was also prescribed for colic, diarrhea, cramps, dizziness, cholera, and faintings.  One 19th-century apothecary named Dr. Thomas Ritter, whose complete medicine chest is in the collection at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine, wrote of ether:  “This medicine ought to be in every medicine chest, and every family.”  Although ether could be administered in a few different ways, Dr. Ritter specifically suggested inhaling it to relieve asthma.  (Eggleston, 2014)


Bottle of ether, 19th century.  Science Museum Group, London.

The collection at the National Museum of Australia includes a 19th-century medicine chest complete with several bottles of medicine, including ether.  According to the museum’s website, such chests were in common use in the 1800s and “…were advertised for the use of ‘clergymen, private families, heads of schools…among others.’”  If heads of schools purchased these chests, then maybe finding evidence of ether at school sites is not that surprising?

chest nma

Medicine chest, National Museum of Australia.


Finding it at an all-black 19th-century school, however, begs other questions and adds another layer of historical importance.  One of our research assistants is currently studying the medicinal bottles recovered archeologically from the Smith School site.  She is investigating whether black students might have received some degree of medical treatment at school because mainstream health care was unavailable to them in racially segregated 19th-century Boston.  We do know that several medicinal bottles in the collection date to the time of the school.  Among the questions she’s addressing is who may have supplied and administered these medicines.  I can’t wait to see what she finds!

In addition to the bottles with the sponges inside, there is one more artifact from the Smith School archeology collection that supports the idea that medical treatment at the school may have included ether inhalation.  We have identified this thin, hollow, glass object as a pipette.  How would one get ether from a storage bottle in the medicine kit to a small inhaler-bottle for treatment?  A pipette like this would have done the job nicely.

1996.1.2532 Pipette-Scale.JPG

Pipette fragment from Abiel Smith School archeology collection.  NPS photo.


One thing we love about working with archeology collections is that they never cease to stump, surprise, and educate us.  I’ve been working with archeology collections from National Park Service sites for about fifteen years, and this was my first sponge in a bottle.  Coming across these objects inspired me to look into the various ways children, adults, or both may have been managing pain or discomfort at the Abiel Smith School over a hundred and fifty years ago.  Artifacts like these bring stories of people and places alive like nothing else can.  We are lucky to be privy to these stories, and honored to share them with you.

The Abiel Smith School located at 46 Joy Street in Boston, now a National Historic Landmark and part of Boston African American NHS, is open to the public Monday through Saturday, 10AM to 4PM.



Eggleston, Lori.  A Look Inside an Old Medicine Chest.  September 11, 2014.  Found online at:  http://blog.fredericknewspost.com/blog/2014/09/11/guardian-of-the-artifacts/a-look-inside-an-old-medicine-chest/

Eger, Edmond I, II, Lawrence J. Saidman, and Rod N. Westhorpe, eds.  The Wondrous Story of Anesthesia.  New York:  Springer, 2014.

Parker, Steve.  Kill or Cure:  An Illustrated History of Medicine.  London:  DK Publishing, 2013.

Snow, John.  On the Inhalation of the Vapour of Ether.  First published London, John Churchill, 1847.  Accessed online at Wood Library Museum website.

The Ancestors of Inhalational Anesthesia:  the Soporific Sponges (XIth – XVIIth Centuries).  Anesthesiology 2000; 93: 265-9.

The Spasms of Hydrophobia Temporarily Relieved by the Inhalation of the Vapour of Sulphuric Ether.  The Lancet, July 3, 1847.

Woodworth, Glenn, Shannon Sayers-Rana, Jeffrey Kirsch.  The Anesthesia Technician and Technologist’s Manual.  Philadelphia Lippincott Williams & Wilkins 2012.

Wood Library Museum of Anesthesiology Website.  https://www.woodlibrarymuseum.org/


Science Museum Group London website:  https://group.sciencemuseum.org.uk/

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Jump Around! Small Mammals of the Appalachian Trail

Appalachian National Scenic Trail preserves a collection of natural history specimens that were collected by scientists during an Inventory and Monitoring project.  These specimens document the ecosystems present along the Trail and serve as a valuable research tool for scientists.  In 2017, NMSC’s intern Adam took a closer look at this collection, and shared his observations and reflections in this informative – and very funny! – blog post.  Next time you’re on the AT, take a minute to appreciate your “furry little neighbors” along the trail!  Many thanks to Adam for his thorough research and thoughtful write-up on this collection!

Ever hiked the Appalachian Trail?  Perhaps just a stretch or two?  Well, even if you haven’t, if you have ever been out in the woods, you have undoubtedly noticed that you are not alone.  Our warm-blooded, furry little neighbors are right at home and flourishing on the Appalachian Trail (colloquially known as the AT).  They are neurotic, amusing, and essential to the health of the trail.  I speak, of course, of the mice, squirrels, chipmunks, and other small mammals along the trail.

appa photo

Appalachian National Scenic Trail

In 2005, the National Park Service conducted a small mammalian inventory study along the northeastern corridor of the Appalachian Trail.   The inventory effort spanned a total of eight states – Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire – and yielded a variety of creatures spanning two orders, four families, and nine species.  The Northeast Museum Services Center assists Appalachian National Scenic Trail with managing the natural resources collection that resulted from this study.

So who/what exactly is living out there?  Far as we know, some small mammals thrive high above in the trees amid the birds, some down below in the shaded understory brushing elbows with the ferns and grasses.  Time to meet this lively cast of characters.

Let’s start with “older” of the two orders, evolutionarily speaking – the order known as the Insectivora.  Concerning the Appalachian Trail inventory, one family and two species of the Insectivora order have been identified.  The family Soricidae – shrews and moles – are represented here by two species: the Masked Shrew and the Short-tailed Shrew.  Remember, each and every one of these little creatures plays an important role in ecosystem balance.  Fossil records reveal the earliest members of the Insectivora date back to the late Cretaceous period, about 75-million years ago.  They probably spent most of their lives frantically running about and avoiding the great dominant reptiles of the Mesozoic era – the mighty dinosaurs.


Shrews eat up to 75% of their body weight every single day and have a higher metabolic rate than any other animal, even higher than the hummingbird (the heart of a shrew beats 800 times per minute).  In fact, most starve to death if deprived of nourishment for a half a day!  For this reason, they will pretty much eat anything available, but actually play an important economical role in human agriculture as destroyers of slugs and insects harmful to crops.

The second order represented along the AT is surely everyone’s favorite – Rodentia.  This group possesses the most diverse assortment of living animals and includes mice, rats, beavers, porcupines, squirrels, and those lovable little chipmunks.  Members of this order occupy every continent on the planet except for Antarctica.  Earliest appearances of the Rodentia in the fossil record date back about 50-45 million years.

Three of the four small mammal families found on the AT claim the Rodentia as their order.  The Scuiridae family are represented here by the Eastern Chipmunk.  A perennial woodland favorite, the Eastern Chipmunk can climb trees but primarily spends its life on the ground creating labyrinth-like tunnels.  Chipmunks are amazing foragers and can store up to eight pounds of food in a single burrow.  They possess a distinct way of talking with one another, often mimicking birds.  In addition, they use many gestures, including ticks and twitches, as a way of communicating which can be a real chuckle to watch.  I haven’t had an opportunity yet to tell the chipmunks that most places are now serving decaf.

Tamias striatus

Eastern chipmunk

Our next family, the jumping mice, are an energetic bunch to say the least.  These creatures live up to their name: they can leap at least six feet horizontally and two feet vertically.  This proves to be an effective evolutionary adaptation for evading capture, for the jumping mouse is at the top of the menu for many predators such as foxes, weasels, snakes, and owls.  Jumping mice consume underground fungi which contributes to maintaining tree health.  The fungi typically attach to tree roots, so by removing fungus from the roots, the tree can optimally absorb nutrients through the soil.  When not threatened and leaping utterly ridiculous distances to save their own lives, these mice get around by hopping a few inches at a time.

jumping mouse

Jumping mouse

The third and final family representing the Rodentia order is one that many people are familiar with, for better or worse.   This family – the Muridae – includes the majority of new world mice, rats, and voles.  These critters have earned quite the reputation among humans, especially when they make their way into people’s homes.  Though out on the AT, far from the hurly-burly of human existence, these creatures more or less mind their own business.  Four species of the Muridae are represented here – a mouse, two voles, and a lemming.  The White-footed Mouse, omnivorous and nocturnal, is an excellent swimmer, climber, and navigator.  From a distance of two miles, the White-footed mouse can easily find its way back to its territory. The red-backed vole sports a shiny chestnut-red coat running down its body, and is also omnivorous.  They are known to store large amounts of food.  Hawks and owls are typically first in line at this buffet.  The Meadow vole (aka field mouse) is a highly adaptable and prolific species and can be found in a variety of habitats, producing up to 11 young per litter…at 10 litters per year!  This little powerhouse of a mouse can eat more than its own body weight within a 24-hour window.  Perhaps it’s time for the Meadow vole to consider a future in the world of competitive eating.

Last but not least, the fourth member of the Muridae on the AT is the Southern Bog Lemming.  Like the other members of this family, lemmings are on every local predator’s lunch and dinner menu.  They fulfill a significant ecological role – their classic tunneling behavior helps mix the soil which allows rainwater and air to access deeper layers of the substrate.  Here, mixing vegetation with droppings increases the soil’s fertility which is good for everything and everybody.

southern bog lemming

Southern bog lemming

So, if you ever find yourself out along the northern leg of Appalachian Trail, keep an eye on the forest floor.  You never know who you might run into.  These diminutive mammals’ contributions to the ecosystem, which may seem insignificant to the everyday observer, have a lasting impact and are imperative to the health of the trail and to the overall stability of the woodlands.  We could all learn a valuable lesson from these kinetic little critters – life’s more fun when you jump around!


Gilbert, B. Miles.  Mammalian Osteology.  Missouri Archaeological Society, 1990.
Hilson, Simon.  Mammal Bones and Teeth.  Institute of Archaeology, Institute of London, 1992.

Image sources:

Appalachian National Scenic Trail:  https://www.nps.gov/appa/index.htm
Masked shrew:  http://www.robinsonlibrary.com/science/zoology/mammals/soricomorpha/s-cinereus.htm
Short-tailed shrew:  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Northern_short-tailed_shrew
Eastern chipmunk:  By Gilles Gonthier – https://www.flickr.com/photos/gillesgonthier/291562671/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1379503
Jumping mouse:  By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – http://mountain-prairie.fws.gov/preble/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=714485
Meadow vole:  http://animaldiversity.org/accounts/Microtus_pennsylvanicus/
White footed mouse:  http://www.wildlifeofct.com/white-footed%20mouse.html
Southern bog lemming:  By PaulT – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4260945




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NMSC: Our Best of 2017!

2017 has been quite a year for NMSC!  We visited some amazing sites, worked with awesome park staff, processed some memorable collections, and welcomed a new director, our long-time friend and colleague Giles Parker.  This was a year of great collaboration with regional curators, park personnel, and inter-agency employees.  We had several fabulous new interns join our team this year and also hosted regional curatorial staff who shared their knowledge and expertise while here on detail.  We love what we do and we are thankful for another rewarding year working with the national parks of the Northeast Region.  Curious?  Take a look at this slide show highlighting some of our Best of 2017!


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Collections Management Goofs, or, How To Make a Registrar Quit in 10 Easy Steps

You probably didn’t become a museum professional because you really enjoy filling out forms, or filing, or writing reports, but that is the large part of what most of us spend our time doing. It’s especially true if your job description includes words like “registrar” or “collections management”. You can expect to spend time pouring over inventories, accession reports, receiving reports, property transfers, deeds of gift, loan agreements, and that’s all before we even start talking about copyright (shudder).

CopyrightNo, sorry, you have to go there.

Over the years, the staff at NMSC have seen it all: the good, the bad, and the ugly. While we generally try to highlight the positive, sometimes you just have to teach by negative example. No curators, museum techs, parks, museums, or other institutions will be named in order to protect the well-intentioned, but rest assured that these are all situations that have really happened.

  1. Never, Ever, Ever Accession An Object You Don’t Have

This will result in many, many wild goose chases as your successor tries desperately to find the object, which old Mrs. So-and-So just never quite got around to dropping off like she promised to. If you don’t have physical custody and a signed Deed of Gift, hands off that Accession Book!

Have you ever seen an introvert panic?


2. Never, Ever, Ever Accept An Object Without Paperwork

An incredibly common scenario: Donor Dave drops off great-grandma’s quilt at the Visitor Center without so much as a by-your-leave, and suddenly you’re stuck with a big ol’ piece of inherent vice infested with who-knows-what. And worse, you can’t dispose of it because you don’t own it! But that doesn’t mean you should pop it into an acid-free box and let it take up space in your storage area. Keep that bug trap separated from your collection until you can either track down Donor Dave or run out the clock on your state’s abandoned property laws.

BlanketHelp! This blanket is going to kill me!


3. Never, Ever, Ever Accession Food

Just trust me. Don’t do it. No one wants to open up what seems to be a lovely stoneware crock and discover it is full of hardboiled eggs from the 1970s. Or what you presume used to be hardboiled eggs…



4. Make Sure Weaponry Is Disabled Before Accepting It

Again, just trust me. Before you accept any kind of firearm or ammunition, make sure a professional has a look at it. The liability issues with firearms and ammunition are complex and avoidable. Don’t be the tech who shuts down a major historical park because what you thought was a bag of rusty nails turns out to be an intact WWII pineapple grenade. Or something like that.

WeaponryWho knew we would have to include cell phones on that list?


5. Never, Ever, Ever Re-Use an Accession or Catalog Number

This is actually less of a problem in the non-federal museum world, because their accession and catalog numbers are date-based, as opposed to the NPS’ sequential numbering system. HOWEVER. Double-assigning a number is basically an unforgiveable sin, because now both of those objects will FOREVER have to carry that number, even if you fess up and give one of them a new number. Your mistake will live on in infamy, and you don’t want to be “that Curator who gave the bronze statue and the hand-made quilt the same accession number”.

TakenWell, maybe just scold you. But it’ll hurt!


6. Hire A Professional

Museum folk have colorful resumes for sure (erratic bouts of employment will do that), but we don’t know everything. Sometimes, cash-strapped though we may be, it’s best to call in a professional. Conservators go to a lot of extra chemistry classes so that your stuff doesn’t fall apart after a clumsy attempt at humidifying rolled maps that had more dirt on them than you thought turns into a busted, muddy mess. Not sure if that bone is human or cow? Don’t err on the side of laziness: you’re going to want to get the repatriation process started ASAP. And if anyone uses the phrase “do-it-yourself taxidermy”, run. Just run.

runBut faster than these guys. Like, a lot faster.


7. Always Assume You Are About To Be Hit By A Bus

Not in a morbid way. But your filing system/storage system/Rosetta Stone to Understanding Color Coded Box Labels cannot live only in your head. Because odds are good that at least ONE of us is going to meet an unexpected end (or maybe just be out of commission for a good long while), and your colleagues may not be as torn up about it as you’d like to think they would be if you leave them with a labyrinth of museum mysteries.

KickThat’ll show you not to file all of your accession paperwork!


8. Let Me Google That For You

The internet has made many aspects of museum work infinitely simpler: obscure property laws, antique oddities, extensive reference guides, and OMG PICTURES are just a search engine away. So there is no more excuse for lazy cataloging: “old couch” is not an acceptable description. A few minutes of e-stalking later, you can probably figure out where the couch was made, what kind of fabric it’s made of, a pretty narrow date range, and who knows what else. Or at least that it should be called a davenport.


Pro-tip: Don’t ask the interns for help. They’ll be super-impressed that you know how to use the internet at your advanced age.


9. Repeat After Me: There Is No Such Thing As A Permanent Loan

We’re all on board with this oxymoron, right? Good. Send that bad-boy back to its rightful owner, or re-do the loan paperwork every five years until they give in and donate it. Those are your only options. Do. Not. Lose. Touch. With. That. Donor.

TugIt’s mine now, right? No? How about now? Still no?


10. Museums Preserve Everything In Perpetuity, Including Your (My) Snark

We all love to get in a good dig now and then, especially about work. But try to remember that anything you put in writing is likely to end up in the permanent records. Sometimes jokes withstand the test of time: when a frustrated landscape architect drops off a pile of irrigation plan drawings, it’s hilarious to find Revision 37 labeled as an “irritation plan”. More often, the things that crack us up now will just seem petty, unprofessional, or even just mean ten years down the line. So resist the urge to doodle your true feelings about a donor on an accession report, write poetic labels on artifacts or catalog records, or leave pornographic surprises in your files.

ShockIt’s never a pleasant surprise.


We hope that you’ve found these collection management horror stories to be helpful and instructive, and hopefully not too familiar. When in doubt, you can always ask NMSC!

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The History of Lowell in 10 Objects: Selections from the Museum Collection at Lowell National Historical Park

A few months ago, during NMSC’s second annual March Madness Facebook campaign, over 800 people voted Lowell National Historical Park (LOWE) their favorite national park in the Northeast Region.  EIGHT HUNDRED people!  That’s a lot of love!  We watched as people from near and far cast their votes for LOWE, and as one local community group after another shared our Facebook post, encouraging their own followers to “Vote for Lowell!”  This year’s contest showed us what a powerful tool social media can be for getting the word out about the wonderful and varied parks in the Northeast Region.  It also showed us how many people appreciate, support, and value this very special park.

When LOWE emerged victorious from our March Madness competition, we visited the park to offer our congratulations and to learn more about their museum collection in preparation for the winner’s blog post.  We met some very friendly rangers at the Visitor Center, toured the Working People Exhibit at the Patrick J. Mogan Cultural Center, and were awed by the sights and sounds of the working looms in the weave room at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum.  We were treated to a tour of collections storage, where former LOWE Museum Specialist Jack Herlihy and LOWE Chief of Cultural Resources Laurel Racine showed us maps and textiles related to the history of Lowell and the Boott Mills.

jess and laurel

LOWE’s Chief of Cultural Resources Laurel Racine with NMSC’s Jessica (author).

The story of Lowell National Historical Park is one of ingenuity, industry, diversity, and resilience.  We asked the curatorial staff at LOWE to choose ten objects from the park’s museum collection that best represent this story.  (You, our readers, are lucky, because they gave us eleven!)  We hope that you enjoy learning about these objects as much as we did, and we hope that this post inspires you to visit Lowell and enjoy its unique history and vibrant culture firsthand.

1792 Locks and Canals Charter

This charter signifies the incorporation of the Proprietors of Locks and Canals, a corporation founded by Boston-area businessmen in 1792 to control water rights and water power along the Merrimack River.  The Proprietors of Locks and Canals constructed the Pawtucket Canal in 1796 to skirt the Pawtucket Falls in the Merrimack River.  The water power controlled by this corporation would prove integral to the development of the textile industry along the Merrimack and hence the development of the City of Lowell.  For a company to incorporate in 1792, the governor of Massachusetts had to sign the charter.  Hence the John Hancock – literally! – at the bottom of this document.

Charter page 11

1792 charter for the Proprietors of Locks and Canals. Photo courtesy of Lowell National Historical Park.

Clock for Boston Manufacturing Company

This clock, made in Boston by Zalman Aspinwall, was purchased for the offices of the Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham, Massachusetts.  The origins of the textile industry in America can be traced back to this office and its associated mill, which was the precursor to the larger and more productive mills in the new city of Lowell.   This clock witnessed some bold ideas and some grand planning from its place on a Waltham wall!


Clock purchased for the offices of the Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham, Massachusetts. 

The Boston Manufacturing Company was founded in 1814 by Francis Cabot Lowell, who had seen power looms at work in England and wanted to copy the process in America.  With mechanical engineer Paul Moody, Lowell built his own version of a power loom, and founded a textile mill on the banks of the Charles River in Waltham.  The water power supplied by the Charles could only go so far, and when the Boston Manufacturing Company wanted to increase production, they sought out new sources of water power in nearby East Chelmsford.  As noted by Laurence Gross in his book The Course of Industrial Decline, “The thirty-foot fall in the mighty Merrimack could power ninety mills the size of Waltham’s” (p. 4).

1821 Map of Lowell

In 1821, before the “Mile of Mills” sprang up along the Merrimack River, the area now known as Lowell was a predominantly rural part of East Chelmsford, sprinkled with small farms and homesteads.  That very year, Boston businessmen would travel to East Chelmsford to view the Pawtucket Falls in the Merrimack and envision the industry that could be supported by such impressive water power.  Just a couple of years after this map was drawn, the depicted area would be almost unrecognizable.

LOWE_3946_1821 map hi res 2008

1821 Map of Lowell by J. G. Hales.  Photo courtesy of Lowell National Historical Park.


Locks and Canals Plan, Kirk Boott


Kirk Boott, image found on Wikimedia Commons.

In the early 1820s, the Boston Manufacturing Company hired Kirk Boott to lead the development of land along the Merrimack River.  Boott worked with the Proprietors of Locks and Canals, selling land and water rights to allow for the establishment of several textile factories along the Merrimack.  Boott oversaw the planning of not only the mills themselves but also the surrounding canals, locks, workers’ housing, and streets.  Mrozowski, Ziesing, and Beaudry write in Living on the Boott that “the factories, street layout, and worker accommodations were constructed according to detailed plans, carefully thought out” (p. 2).  Despite its early 19th-century date, this plan has a classic and timeless quality about it.  As noted by Jack Herlihy during our site visit, these original plans “are still used today [by city planners and canal operators] for their intended purpose.”

locks and canals plan

Locks and Canals Plan by Kirk Boott.  Photo courtesy of Lowell National Historical Park.


Lowell Machine Shop Loom

This loom is attributed to the Lowell Machine Shop, which began as the machine shop for the Boston Manufacturing Company in Waltham then followed textile production to the new mills in Lowell.  The Shop was distinct from the mills, having been incorporated as an independent entity in 1845. According to Lowell National Historical Park’s official website, “the shop underlay Lowell’s textile industries:  fabricating machines that turned cotton into cloth, building waterwheels, turbines, and steam engines that provided the power, and making shafts, gears, and pulleys that transferred power within the mill…  The development of such skills in the textile industry’s early machine shops was a crucial step in the American Industrial Revolution.”  In other words, without the expertise contained in the Lowell Machine Shop, and the dependable tools and machines produced there, the story of textile production in America would have been very different.


Lowell Machine Shop Loom.  At Lowell National Historical Park.

This loom is on exhibit at Lowell National Historical Park, where you can also walk through the Weave Room at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum and get a feel for what it must have been like to work in the mill at its heyday.  Loud, for starters!  During out site visit, we were amazed by the sound the working looms produced: it was deafening!  The looms on exhibit today represent only a fraction of those in place when the mill was functioning. Just imagine how crowded and noisy a day at work was for the men, women, and children tending the looms!

1855 Loom Patent Model

This loom might look a little small to you.  It’s not a mini version, it’s a patent model!  From 1790 until 1880, anyone applying for a patent with the U.S. Patent Office was required to submit a working model of his or her invention as well as supporting documents.  This model was created for that purpose in 1855 by Samuel T. Thomas of Lawrence, Massachusetts.  It is currently on display at the park’s Visitor Center on Dutton Street in downtown Lowell.  Be sure to take a look when you visit!


Loom patent model, on exhibit at Visitor Center on Dutton Street.


Front Cover of the Lowell Offering

Most people familiar with the history of Lowell have heard the term, “mill girls.”  This name refers to the many young women who came to Lowell in the early 19th century, seeking a chance to earn their own wages or an alternative to rural life.  These women worked and lived together, laboring long hours in the mills then going home to nearby boardinghouses in the evenings.  The Lowell Offering was a publication produced between 1840 and 1845 that contained writings by the “mill girls.”  In Loom and Spindle (written in 1898), former mill girl Harriet Robinson wrote of the Lowell Offering that “many of the pieces that were printed there were thought out amid the hum of the wheels, while the skillful fingers and well-trained eyes of the writers tended the loom or the frame” (p. 98).

According to Robinson, the origin of the Lowell Offering stemmed from workers’ desire to improve themselves morally and intellectually, and to prove that “intellect and intelligence might be found even among factory operatives” (p. 99-100).  The content of the Lowell Offering varied from poetry and other literary contributions, to scientific papers about astronomy or physiology, to political statements about working conditions in the mills, women’s rights, or slavery.  The magazine was distributed throughout New England and was welcomed in many communities as a source of enlightened, progressive ideas.  In his American Notes, Charles Dickens wrote admiringly of the Offering, stating that even though written after a hard day’s work, “it will compare advantageously with a great many English annuals” (p. 111).

The idyllic image on the cover of the Lowell Offering evokes everything a proper and righteous mill girl ought to have been:  the book in the young lady’s hand signals her studiousness and dedication to self-improvement; the church spire in the background indicates her faith and attendance at religious services; the beehive in her view speaks to her industriousness and selflessness.  As the 19th century progressed, the workforce in the mills shifted.  The era of the “mill girl” in Lowell was succeeded by waves of various immigrant groups, who brought to the mills their own ideas of identity and work, and who brought to the city the different cultural elements that helped make Lowell the rich and diverse community it is today.


Lowe 1257 LowellOffering Cover

Front cover of a Lowell Offering publication ca. 1845.  In the museum collection at Lowell National Historical Park.  Photo courtesy of Lowell National Historical Park.

Archeological Artifact – Kiss Me, I’m Sterilized! Pin

As a member of NMSC’s archeology team, I was thrilled to see on the LOWE staff’s list of eleven objects an “archeological artifact of your choosing.”  We love archeology because of its potential to tell the stories that are unwritten and to illuminate the lives of those who do not appear in historical documents.  Unlike their Yankee predecessors, the Irish, French-Canadian, Greek, Polish, Portuguese, Russian and other immigrants who worked in Lowell’s textile factories starting in the second half of the 19th century generally did not publish literature about their experiences in the mills.  Their voices can be heard by examining the material culture they left behind in the archeological record.

NMSC processed a large collection of archeological artifacts from LOWE in 2014.  The collection contained 19th-century ceramics, glassware, medicinal bottles, and several personal objects including a button painted with an Irish shamrock design, a simple gold wedding ring, and two mourning brooches.  One of our favorite artifacts is a pin-back button printed with the phrase “Kiss Me Kid, I’m Sterilized!” and an image of a man and woman in early 20th-century attire leaning in for a kiss.  This pin may be associated with the severe outbreak of Spanish influenza that affected Boston in 1918, which killed 141 people in one week alone that October.    Tufts Medical Center in Medford began offering vaccinations soon after the outbreak occurred.  While the imagery on this artifact is light and funny, whoever donned the pin clearly took the health scare seriously and went out of his or her way to avoid getting sick.

I find a bittersweet irony in this artifact and the story behind it.  The working conditions in the Lowell mills in the 1910s were abysmal.  Official reports noted dark, dirty rooms with filthy floors, broken windows, and temperatures that were often extremely hot or cold.  The noise levels in the weaving room were deafening.  The cotton “fly” in the air created a fire hazard and made it difficult to breathe, a hardship exacerbated by the high levels of humidity in the mills.  Workers suffered from frequent injuries and “colds, catarrh, and grippe infections,” not to mention byssinosis, or “brown lung.” (Gross p. 133-138) In light of these conditions and the refusal of management to deal with them for the sake of their employees, the idea of a mill worker seeking out a vaccination to protect his or her health seems especially poignant.

kiss me kid

“Kiss Me Kid, I’m Sterilized!” pin from the archeology collection at Lowell National Historical Park.  (Left:  artifact from LOWE collection.  Right:  image of intact example found online)


Boott Products

The Boott Mill is associated primarily with coarse goods like corduroy, canvas, and toweling.  These items are important components of the park’s museum collection because they represent the culmination of the technology, labor, and marketing exercised by the Boott Mills and its employees.  During World War II, the company focused its efforts on military products.   After the war, towels once again became a major commodity for the Boott, reaching a production level of ten million yards a year.  (Gross p. 215) These items were known for their good quality and repeatedly received the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.  Successful marketing strategies in the 20th century led to a wide distribution of these products, which ended up at wholesalers, chain stores, and mail-order houses.  Montgomery-Ward, Sears & Roebuck, and Woolworth’s are just some of the sellers that offered Boott towels by the mid-1900s.


Army-Navy E Award Pennant and Poster

The Army-Navy E Award was an honor presented to companies during World War II that achieved excellence in production of war equipment.  Viewing these important objects, which, as you can see from the photos, are beautifully preserved, was a highlight of our site visit.  During World War II, the Boott Mill focused on producing goods for the war effort, primarily canvas for the navy.  Earned by only 5% of the more than 85,000 companies involved in producing materials for the US effort, the E Award was granted to the Boott Mill every year during World War II.  According to the park’s former Museum
Specialist Jack Herlihy, historic photographs show Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers at the Boott Mills with mill employees wearing E Award pins.  Nourse was sponsored several pieces of legislation designed to support our armed forces.  Jack also told us while visiting LOWE that this E Award pennant once flew at the counting house of the Boott Mill.  Walking through the courtyard today, it’s easy to picture these proud, bright colors flying overhead.

e award

E Award pennant from the museum collection at Lowell National Historical Park.


E Award poster from the museum collection at Lowell National Historical Park.

Cambodian Dance Costume Helmet

In Mill Power:  the Origin and Impact of Lowell National Historical Park, Paul Marion describes the dynamic changes in Lowell’s population during the last twenty years of the 20th century, when “some 17,000 refugees from Southeast Asia, most of them Cambodians, along with many Vietnamese and Laotians, resettled in the mill city” (p. 31).  The Cambodian population has enriched Lowell in many significant ways, adding specific elements of their traditional culture to an already diverse city.  This headpiece signifies the Cambodian refugees’ heritage and their cultural contributions to modern-day Lowell.

This object is not a historic piece; it was purchased by Lowell National Historical Park as a representative item for exhibit purposes.  The helmet is one element of a costume worn during a traditional Cambodian dance performed regularly in Lowell by the Angkor Dance Troupe.  As expressed on the group’s website, the troupe was formed in 1986 when “Tim Thou and a group of Cambodian refugees with a passion for Khmer performing arts came together in Lowell, Massachusetts with the sole purpose to revive a culture once almost lost.”  This headpiece is an important piece in Lowell National Historical Park’s museum collection because it represents a part of Lowell’s history that is not related to – but equally as worthy of interpretation and preservation as – the story of the textile mills.


Helmet from traditional Cambodian dance costume. In the museum collection at Lowell National Historical Park.

cambodian dance

Image of Angkor Dance Troupe, found online at Massachusetts Cultural Council’s website.



In Mill Power:  The Origin and Impact of Lowell National Historical Park, Paul Marion writes about the creation of Lowell and the ideals that it was founded on:  “Lowell was the American imagination at work…a declaration of industrial independence.”  (Marion p. 7)  Lowell’s history is characterized by growth, decline, and rebirth, as the city continuously sought to keep up with America’s changing economy.  The story of Lowell’s people reflects the story of America:  a population as diverse as it is hardworking, strong, and proud.  Without the European immigrants who powered the mills in the 19th century, and the Cambodian refugees of today who infuse the city with their vibrant culture, Lowell as we know it would not exist.

Patrick Mogan, who dedicated his career to revitalizing Lowell in the 20th century and was instrumental in the formation of Lowell National Historical Park, often said:  “A city that has no past cannot have a future.” (Marion p. 159)  History provides us with a sense of belonging that instills pride in our local places and stories. Lowell National Historical Park helps to ensure that Lowell’s inspiring history will be preserved and passed on for years to come.

We hope that you enjoyed learning about these objects from the museum collection at Lowell National Historical Park!  It was our pleasure sharing them with you.  We offer our most sincere thanks to LOWE’s former Museum Specialist Jack Herlihy and LOWE’s Chief of Cultural Resources Laurel Racine for taking the time to meet with us and share their extensive knowledge about the park’s museum collection.  Summer’s not over yet!  Add a visit to this one-of-a-kind park to your bucket list this year!


Angkor Dance Troupe, official website:  http://www.angkordance.org/

Gross, Laurence F.  The Course of Industrial Decline:  The Boott Cotton Mills of Lowell, Massachusetts, 1835-1955.  Baltimore:  The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993.

Herlihy, Jack, personal communication, May 18, 2017.

Lowell National Historical Park, official website:  https://www.nps.gov/lowe/index.htm

Marion, Paul.  Mill Power:  The Origin and Impact of Lowell National Historical Park.  ew York:  Rowman and Littlefield, 2014.

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.

Racine, Laurel, personal communication, May 18, 2017.

Robinson, Harriet H.  Loom and Spindle:  Or Life Amongst the Early Mill Girls.  Carlisle, MA:  Applewood Books, 1898.



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Back to Class! Tips from Winterthur’s “Ceramics Up Close” Conference

Sharpen your pencils and put your thinking caps on… we’re going back to class!  Here at NMSC, we try to attend conferences and workshops on a fairly regular basis in order to keep abreast of the latest research and network with other museum professionals.  Last month, I attended the 2017 Ceramics Up Close conference at Winterthur, which allowed me to get an in-depth, hands-on look at some of the remarkable ceramics in Winterthur’s collection (ALL of which are digitized on their online database!).  There is truly no better way to learn about these objects than to see them up close, front and back, and discuss them firsthand with experts.  The tips I learned at this conference will help me to better catalog and date the ceramics we encounter in NPS archeology collections.  We hope they will help you, too!  If you work with historic ceramics (or pieces of them, like we do), or just enjoy them, for that matter, then this blog post is for you!


NMSC’s Jessica (author) at Winterthur’s 2017 Ceramics Up Close conference.


Is it Chinese export porcelain, or an English imitation?

In the 18th century, English porcelain factories like Bow, Caughley, and Spode produced soft paste porcelain to try to imitate the hugely popular hard paste variety coming out of China.  (There’s a great online exhibit about Spode – and the Chinese export it was inspired by – accessible via Winterthur’s website.)  Sometimes it can be hard to tell the difference!  Here’s a helpful tip I learned:  the Chinese never printed on their wares, while the English did.  If it looks like blue and white Chinese export but it’s printed, it’s probably English.

final for blog

Left:  Chinese export porcelain plate, handpainted, Winterthur collection.  Right:  Spode soft paste porcelain plate, printed, Winterthur collection.

Is it slip cast, or press molded?

Slip casting was a popular method of producing fine stoneware vessels in the mid-18th century.  It was not often used with earthenware, and was less common after the 18th century.  The fairly complicated process of slip casting resulted in the molded decoration being echoed in relief on the interior of the vessel.  If you can feel or see the reverse decoration on the inside of the piece, it was slip cast, and most likely dates to before 1800.  If the interior is smooth, it was probably press molded.

teapot 1740-1760

Slip-cast white salt-glazed stoneware teapot in the museum collection at Winterthur.

Is it majolica, or is it faience?

(We’ve noticed some differences in opinion throughout the field as to exactly how you define and identify these tin-glazed wares.  The tips offered here represent what I learned at this conference.  If you have a different opinion, we encourage you to share it with us!) 

I learned at this conference that majolica vessels were sometimes finished with less expensive lead glaze on the back (like the vessel shown here), while faience was usually completely tin-glazed.  Also, majolica pieces may exhibit “crows feet” – marks from the separators used to create space between vessels during firing.

tin enamel with lead glazed back

Tin-glazed plate with lead-glazed back from museum collection at Winterthur.

crows feet

Close-up showing “crows feet” on above vessel.

How old is that tin-glazed vessel? Where was it made?

We learned at this conference that manganese wasn’t used until about 1650.  In a nutshell, if you see manganese, it’s mostly likely about 1650 or later.  We also learned that Portuguese tin-glazed vessels often have this pin-pricked look to their glaze.  If you see a bunch of tiny holes like this in the glaze, there’s a good chance it’s Portuguese.

portugal plate front

Tin-glazed plate with manganese outline from museum collection at Winterthur.  Portugal, ca. 1650-1675.

portuguese plate pin pricks

Back of the above plate, showing pin-prick-type holes in the glaze.

Is that stoneware from Germany, or somewhere else?

German potters separated their vessels from the wheel by cutting them off at the base with cheese wire, resulting in rough, somewhat parallel ridges on the base like the ones seen here.  English and Dutch potters removed their vessels from the wheel by simply lifting or pulling them off.  Instead of the ridges, you’d see what might be described as pucker marks on the bases of these vessels, or they may look fairly smooth.  If you see ridges like this on the base, it’s probably German.

stoneware base

Base of a stoneware vessel in the museum collection at Winterthur.  Note the ridges created when the vessel was cut from the wheel.

Is that Chinese porcelain or Japanese porcelain?

Both Chinese and Japanese 18th-century porcelain was sometimes decorated in this specific color palette of burnt orange, gold, and blue, sometimes referred to as the “Imari palette.”  How do you tell if a vessel like this is Chinese or Japanese porcelain?  The Japanese decoration was often “busier,” as seen in the difference between these two plates.  Also, Japanese ceramics show evidence of the kiln furniture that separated one piece from another during firing.  (Look closely; click on the photo to enlarge it a bit.  See the three circular marks on the back of the first plate?)  You will not see these marks on Chinese porcelain.  So, if it’s “busy” and has marks in the glaze from kiln furniture, it’s probably Japanese rather than Chinese porcelain.

japanese kiln marksboth

Japanese plate with “Imari palette” from museum collection at Winterthur.  Kiln furniture marks evident on back of plate.

chinese imari front and back

Chinese plate with “Imari palette” from museum collection at Winterthur.


These are just a few of the tips I came away with from this fantastic conference.  During our work with NPS archeology collections, we regularly come across familiar friends like feather-edged pearlware plates, transfer-printed whiteware teacups, and lead-glazed redware jars.  We also see our fair share of vessel forms and decorative techniques that throw us for a loop!  These challenges are what make our jobs fun and exciting.  Taking advantage of learning experiences like this helps us stay up to date in the field, hone our cataloging skills, and better understand the wonderful world of historic ceramics.


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