Celebrating the exotic and the ordinary


Other objects document the wealth and refinement of New England's first families. The range of Historic New England's collections is wonderfully captured on the cover of Nancy Carlisle's Cherished Possessions, which pictures a fish-shaped silver sewing case alongside a battered teapot (see Fig. 3), one an expensive bit of whimsy owned by a New England lady, the other the supposed relic of Crispus Attucks, the Afro-Indian mariner who was the first to fall in the Boston Massacre. While I do not believe for a minute that the pewter teapot was ever owned by Attucks, I am fascinated by the way an object destined for the junk heap came to symbolize not only a moment in New England history but the heroism of a nonwhite inhabitant. Similar stories, some of them yet to be untangled, can be found in many of the objects in Carlisle's catalogue.

Motivated by regional pride and by a desire to include ordinary people in history, nineteenth-century New Englanders created what is surely one of the world's largest collections of everyday household goods. This came home to me in dramatic form when I set out several years ago to find handwoven textiles made in New England. I was astonished to find linens so humbly homemade that under magnification one could see bits of unprocessed flax still clinging to the thread. Nineteenth-century antiquarians saved ragged towels, warped bed blankets, cocoons left over from failed experiments in silk culture, and unfinished stockings still looped onto rusted needles. They saved weaving drafts written on the back of old letters, handmade dye books, and hand-carved niddy noddies. Of course they cherished fancy things as well, silk waistcoats and crewelwork bed hangings (see Fig. 11), but they also preserved stained and faded aprons and the ragged corners of old coverlets.

Some of the most intriguing collections were donated by unmarried women who, in the last years of the nineteenth century, became guardians of old houses. Between 1917 and 1933, Ellen Stone of Lexington, Massachusetts gave Historic New England more than fifteen hundred items that had accumulated in her family's Lexington homestead. These included in addition to a rare memorial watercolor made at Mrs. Rowson's Academy in Boston (see Fig. 9), a collection of cobwebs used to staunch bleeding. She contributed bits of wallpaper, door latches, mosquito netting, and a bar of soap still in its eighteenth-century wrapper, but better yet she contributed stories about where things came from and how they might have been used. Objects preserve memories. But the converse is also true. Without memories, ordinary objects end up in flea markets or trash bins.

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by Émile Jacques Ruhlmann (1879-1933), 1926. Macassar ebony, amaranth, and ivory. Metropolitan Museum of Art. By Cynthia Drayton

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