Celebrating the exotic and the ordinary


Even when those memories prove faulty, they become the starting point for historical investigation. Among the treasures Stone left to Historic New England is a photograph showing the jumble of things in her attic (Fig. 8). I am especially struck by the baskets. The one on the left looks very much like the wood splint baskets made and sold throughout the Northeast in the nineteenth century by persons who according to the town histories of the period, and even the surveys I read when I first came to New England in the 1960s, were not supposed to have been there. New England Indians, so the story went, had all been killed in King Philip's War of 1675 to 1676. The region's literature is full of accounts of quaint or eccentric characters who were supposedly "the last of the Nipmucks"—or Wampanoags or Niantics or Mohegans. In recent years, the baskets they made have become a rich source for understanding the Indians' survival.

Domestic craft has also become an important medium for understanding women's work in the household and beyond. One of the most powerful objects in Historic New England's collections is a cradle quilt sold at an antislavery fair in 1836 (Fig. 10). A poem inked in the central square nicely connects ideas about good womanhood with the responsibilities of citizenship:

Mother! When around your child
You clasp your arms in love,
And when with grateful joy you raise
Your eyes to God above-
Think of the negro-mother
When her child is torn away-
Sold for a little slave--oh, then
For that poor mother pray.


Although the poem offers prayer as the solution to the slave's dilemma, the quilt itself exemplifies the activism of women who organized, signed petitions, lobbied legislators, and contributed money to the antislavery cause. The quilt was donated by a descendant of Eliza Frances Eddy (1816-1881), who served as an officer in the Boston Female Anti-Slavery Society.

Some objects still defy interpretation. One of my favorites in that category is the pelerine or feather cape pictured in detail on the back cover of Cherished Possessions and here in Figure 1. There could be no better example of the ways artifacts complicate simplistic notions about the insularity of people living in earlier centuries. We talk today about a "global economy" without realizing how central trade has always been to the history of New England from the first fishing vessels that landed on its shores to the China trade and beyond. The feather cape originated in the 1820s or 1830s though no one knows where. The feathers come from different parts of the world, exemplifying the reach of international commerce in the period. More than fifty similar capes have survived in historical and anthropological collections; Historic New England has five more, though as yet nobody has been able to fully account for their origins. Probably they are a fanciful adaptation of capes and collars typical of the period, an attempt by some fashion innovator to transform the ordinary into the exotic. Not surprisingly, rural women attempted to replicate them with less expensive materials. Old Sturbridge Village has two pelerines embellished with the down from milkweed pods.

There are many wonderful museums and historical societies in New England, but among them Historic New England is unique not only for the geographic and chronological spread of its collections, but for its effort to preserve houses and collections together, making possible a rich interplay of artifacts, documents, memory, and place. In recent years, it has given increasing attention to the twentieth century, in part because of the opening of the Walter Gropius House in Lincoln, Massachusetts, but also through the launching of major initiatives on dairying in New England and on the New England kitchen. To my astonishment, the 1940s and 1950s, the period of my childhood, is now the focus of nostalgic and historical collection. Faded linoleum is now an antiquity!

As in the nineteenth century, change turns people's attention to the past. Last winter, the home furnishings chain Crate and Barrel moved out of the landmark glass building in Harvard Square designed by the Architects Collaborative, which Gropius founded. After months of looking at "For Rent" signs in the empty building, a group of public-spirited citizens mounted an exhibit of Marimekko housewares gathered from private collections all over New England. A new era of collecting appears to have begun. If only I had saved the fabric I once hung on my wall!

LAUREL THATCHER ULRICH, the 300th Anniversary University Professor at Harvard University, is the author of the Pulitzer Prize winning A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard Based on Her Diary 1785-1812 (1990), and the best-selling Well-Behaved Women Seldom Make History (2007), among other books. She was a MacArthur Foundation Fellow from 1992 to 1997, and recently stepped down as president of the American Historical Association.

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[Compiled by Bill Stern, Executive Director at the Museum of California Design, Los Angeles. Originally published in "Curator's Eye" in Modern Magazi

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