Saturday, April 28, 2018

Behind the Victorian Mask, a Federal Dandy

Secretary Desk as found
Not every Victorian is as dowdy as they might seem. Last year, at the Warner House in Portsmouth NH, we began to plan the exhibit for the next 2-year cycle and a larger curatorial re-assessment of the interior. The main exhibit will be Celebrations: Public and Private, but the other project was to recreate a c 1760 bedchamber, based on paint analysis and recorded wall hangings in Portsmouth—a city with a penchant for damask wallpaper in the 18thcentury. There has been no physical work done to this room since roughly 1932 when the house became a museum. 

Researching one aspect of a collection invariably leads to other parts of the collection. A case in point, no pun intended, was a large secretary/bookcase sitting in a Victorian bedchamber. It was a family piece that through descent was given to the museum. No matter where it was placed, it exuded a dark and foreboding presence. The glass doors reflected and absorbed light in large quantities and the base simply absorbed light. With its turned wooden handles it looked like a transitional piece from the 1830s or 40s.  One of the handles was removed to see if there were any clues to surface discoloration or handle replacement. Sure enough, the exposed surface was lighter and there was a ring burn where a brass rosette once sat. All the handles were removed and the results were the same. 
With new and old brasses
Additionally an owner’s name was found in the correct script that placed it closer to the 1810-1820 period; this placed it in the house during the appropriate period for family that once owned it. Furniture fashions change and the piece was improved at some point to reflect the sensibilities of the Victorian era. Through research new brasses were found, ordered and installed. The case was lightly cleaned to remove old wax and dirt, which then revealed some of the lightly figured wood. Oddly a finial from the 1810-1820 period, that fit no other piece of furniture and had no known history, was found in the attic and the shaft fit the hole in the central pier of the upper case. (Serendipity? Perhaps.) The interior of the doors showed that they had been lined with fabric at one time. So new green taffeta silk lining curtains where made to complete the piece. The new and old brasses return reflected light to the base and the pinnacle and act as a counterpoint to the glass doors, just as the green silk provides a complimentary color counterpoint to the reddish mahogany.

With silk lining and brasses in natural light
The secretary/bookcase will now sit in the downstairs parlor with several other pieces of early 19thcentury and be part of the post Lafayette dinner celebration for the 2-year exhibit. 

Jeffrey Hopper is the director of the Warner House (

Friday, April 6, 2018

Treasures Afoot: Shoe Stories from the Georgian Era

Johns Hopkins University Press, 2018.
Image, Strawbery Banke; Photograph, Ellen McDermott
Shoes reveal the hopes, dreams, and disappointments of the early Americans who wore them.

In Treasures Afoot, Kimberly S. Alexander introduces readers to the history of the Georgian shoe. Presenting a series of stories that reveal how shoes were made, sold, and worn during the long eighteenth century, Alexander traces the fortunes and misfortunes of wearers as their footwear was altered to accommodate poor health, flagging finances, and changing styles. She explores the lives and letters of clever apprentices, skilled cordwainers, wealthy merchants, and elegant brides, taking readers on a journey from bustling London streets into ship cargo holds, New England shops, and, ultimately, to the homes of eager consumers.

We trek to the rugged Maine frontier in the 1740s, where an aspiring lady promenades in her London-made silk brocade pumps; sail to London in 1765 to listen in as Benjamin Franklin and John Hose caution Parliament on the catastrophic effects of British taxes on the shoe trade; move to Philadelphia in 1775 as John Hancock presides over the Second Continental Congress while still finding time to order shoes and stockings for his fiancée’s trousseau; and travel to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, in 1789 to peer in on Sally Brewster Gerrish as she accompanies President George Washington to a dance wearing her brocaded silk shoes.

Interweaving biography and material culture with full-color photographs, Treasures Afoot raises a number of fresh questions about everyday life in early America: What did eighteenth-century British Americans value? How did they present themselves? And how did these fashionable shoes reveal their hopes and dreams? Examining shoes that have been preserved in local, regional, and national collections, this book demonstrates how footwear captures an important moment in American history while revealing a burgeoning American identity.

Historian Kimberly S. Alexander, a former curator at the MIT Museum, the Peabody Essex Museum, and Strawbery Banke, teaches material culture and museum studies at the University of New Hampshire.