Growing Interests: Expanding the collections at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum

Editorial Staff Art, Furniture & Decorative Arts

In 1926 John D. Rockefeller Jr. formally embarked on the project that would become the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation by purchasing Philip Ludwell’s house of about 1775 on Duke of Gloucester Street. That acquisition, the first “antique” in Colonial Williamsburg’s collection, came to play a pivotal role in the founding of what would eventually be the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. In 1932 the restoration of the Ludwell-Paradise House, as it is now known, was complete and the building ready for furnishing. When Abby Aldrich Rockefeller toured the empty structure, she offered to loan the bulk of her American folk art collection for display there.

Fig. 6. Appliquéd quilt by Dora Smith, DeKalb County, Georgia, probably 1901. Cottons; 73 by 67 inches. Although some AfricanAmerican women quilted in the dominant tradition, others reflected their African roots through bold colors, asymmetry, rhythmic variations, and a deemphasis on the quilting stitches in favor of the overall design. This quilt includes traditional motifs such as stars and moons, in addition to snakes, human hands, eyes, and simplified human figures that are found in other quilts created by African-American quiltmakers.

Mrs. Rockefeller, an avid collector, had begun purchasing American folk art in the late 1920s as an outgrowth of her interest in modern art. Seeing similarities between the aesthetics of contemporary and folk art, within a decade she amassed a collection of more than four hundred pieces. The collection, strong in premiere examples of American folk painting, drawing, and sculpture, came to Williamsburg in 1935, and portions of it were shown at the Ludwell-Paradise House. In 1939 Mr. and Mrs. Rockefeller transferred ownership of the collection to Colonial Williamsburg as a gift.

Fig. 1. Toy ship, German, 1830–1880. Wood, paint, string, and paper; height 8 1/2, width 8, depth 2 inches. In the nineteenth century, more than two-thirds of the toys sold in America came from Germany. This ship is typical of these highly colorful anddetailed wooden toys. The objects illustrated are in the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum, Williamsburg, Virginia.

After Abby Rockefeller’s death in 1948, her husband worked with the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to establish a more permanent home for the collection. In 1957 the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Collection (later Museum) opened in a new, purpose-built structure. The collection housed there has not only grown in size in the sixty years since, but, under the leadership of several remarkable directors and curators, has expanded in breadth to include important painted furniture, needlework, silhouettes, and decorative useful wares. Of particular note are the ceramics, quilt, and toy collections.


Fig. 2. Face jug attributed to the John A. Roberts pottery, Cookeville, Putnam County, Tennessee, 1880–1904. Stoneware; height 9 ¼ inches. Face jugs were made at several potteries in the South during the late nineteenth century, but were rare in Tennessee. This example closely resembles two other jugs in private collections, one of which is stamped “J. A. ROBERTS / COOKEVILLE / POTTERY / TENN.” Unlike this example, the others retain their fixed bail-style handles decorated to simulate tree bark and branches. Gift of Abby Aldrich Rockefeller.Of the more than four hundred objects given to the foundation by Abby Rockefeller, only one was an American ceramic: a face jug purchased in 1935 by her consultant Holger Cahill from Nashville dealer Clara D. Brown (Fig. 2). Although unattributed at the time, research published in 2011 brought to light its striking similarity to a stamped example made at the John A. Roberts pottery in Cookeville, Tennessee, approximately eighty miles east of where it was acquired. The growth of the museum’s ceramics collection began in earnest during the 1970s, in anticipation of the American Bicentennial, when many institutions placed greater emphasis on American-made pieces. Today the collection comprises approximately 150 objects, more than sixty acquired during the decade of our nation’s two hundredth birthday.

Fig. 3. Bank by John George Schweinfurt (1825–1907), New Market, Virginia, 1850–1875. Unglazed earthenware; height 10 1/2 width 7 1/2, depth 7 inches. The German-born Schweinfurt established a pottery in New Market in 1850, where he produced primarily utilitarian earthenware vessels, including mugs, bowls, pipes, and inkwells. This bank, along with several other objects, descended in the potter’s family. Fashioned in the form of a potter’s kiln, it features a male figure kneeling by the coin slot on the roof and, below, a working door through which coins can be removed. Acquisition funded by Mr. & Mrs. William Murdoch Jr.

The southern focus initiated with the face jug is evident today in examples made in Alabama, Georgia, Virginia (Fig. 3), Texas, and Kentucky. Yet the collection also emphasizes the breadth and depth of American-made ceramics, with wares from a wide variety of locales from Texas to Vermont. Themes of whimsy, the human form, traditional potting techniques, and an array of design influences are apparent as well. Recent acquisitions have focused on examples by twentieth- and twenty-first-century potters working in traditional ways, including Georgia Blizzard, Burlon Craig, Michael Crocker (Fig. 4), and Billy Ray Hussey. Ceramics exhibitions at the Folk Art Museum stress the continuity of traditions and techniques from the eighteenth century through the twenty-first. While aesthetics are important, we strive primarily to understand how these pieces were made, who owned them, and their lasting impact in America. We look at the stories of enslaved and free black potters working in the nineteenth century and at the stories of women potters. One important aspect is showing how styles and trends moved with potters and their families through time and place. For instance, by studying the wares of potters such as the Cravens, who started in this country in New Jersey and moved to North Carolina and Tennessee, we can explore not only how their wares were shaped by the traditions they encountered there but also how they shaped the ceramic traditions in those locations.

Fig. 4. Jardiniere and stand by Michael Crocker (1956–), Lula, Georgia, 1997. Ash-glazed stoneware; height 35 3/8 inches. This jardiniere is very much a product of a strong regional potting tradition. The vessel itself was thrown by Michael Crocker, the snakes were sculpted by his brother Melvin, and the flowers modeled by their mother, Pauline. Michael and Melvin worked together creating face jugs, pitchers, and jugs ornamented with snakes until 1999 when Melvin left to start his own shop. Unlike many contemporary potters, Michael works only with local clays and handmade glazes. These traditional practices link him directly to the history of Georgia folk pottery. Gift of Daisy Wade Bridges.


Fig. 5. Album quilt by Sarah Anne W. Lankford (1830–1898) and others, Baltimore, Maryland, c. 1850. Cottons, ink, metal, and glass with wool, cotton, and silk embroidery; 99 by 84 inches. Like the finest Baltimore album quilts, this one consists of elaborately conceived blocks of appliquéd birds, wreaths, baskets, and urns, in addition to complex blocks of architectural motifs. Represented are the U. S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., and a memorial to Major Samuel Ringgold, a hero of the Mexican War. The quilt descended in Sarah Lankford’s family until it was donated to the museum. Gift of Marsha C. Scott.

Abby Rockefeller did not collect significant quantities of quilts, and none of those she owned are in the museum collection today. The first full-size quilt to enter the collection—in the Mariner’s Compass pattern—came as a gift in 1972 (Fig. 7). The collection has grown steadily ever since and now numbers 120 quilts that span almost 160 years, from about 1822 to the late twentieth century. It is especially noteworthy for the variety of patterns, materials, and techniques represented—whole-cloth, appliqué, pieced, and stuffed work among them. One of the strengths is its diversity of makers. Examples created by Anglo-American, Amish, Mennonite, Pennsylvania-German, African-American (Fig. 6), and Hawaiian quilt makers reveal the multicultural nature of American society. Another strength is southern quilts, including some of the finest appliquéd album quilts created in Baltimore and in neighboring Maryland counties during the mid-nineteenth century (Fig. 5).

Fig. 7. Mariner’s Compass quilt attributed to Margaret Dodge Marschalk Sutton (1826–1907), Brooklyn, New York, 1845– 1855. Pieced cottons; 100 ¼ by 98 ¾ inches. This quilt descended in the maker’s family until donated to the museum in 1972. Each block contains a pieced thirty-two-point compass within a quilted circle. Gift of Robert W. Pitt.


The toy collection began with a deer, a dog, and a whale—carved wooden animals collected in the 1930s by Abby Rockefeller, who was drawn to their sculptural qualities rather than their status as toys (Fig. 9). Within a few years of the Folk Art Museum’s opening, dolls, games, and other nineteenth-century toys had entered the collection, primarily as gifts from generous donors, a trend that has continued. Of particular note was a gift in 1971 of hundreds of German wooden and American tin toys amassed by a single collector (Fig. 1). In 1979 another individual donated a collection that perfectly complemented the earlier gift by expanding the number and variety of German toys. These contributions gave focus to a collection that was growing into a comprehensive survey of childhood from the 1840s through the early twentieth century. More recently, significant gifts, including ones of trains and other transportation toys, along with the museum’s purchase of key objects—a fifteen-foot-long dollhouse of about 1900, a seven-footlong wooden train of the 1870s, and late nineteenthcentury African-American dolls (Fig. 8)—have allowed us to further explore the range of playthings enjoyed by American children.

Fig. 8. Black dolls, American, 1880–1900. Plain and printed cotton fabrics, string, leather, beads, buttons, and cotton embroidered facial features; height (of male) 19, (of female) 18 ¼ inches. Dolls made completely of cloth were common playthings for young girls. However, they either do not survive or are well-worn. This couple is in exceptional condition. The facial features and clothing are well fashioned, with careful stitching and attention to details, such as the black beads for the eyes. After the Civil War African-American women had limited opportunities for making money. Those skilled in needlework could work as seamstresses, and some created dolls.

The artistic aspects and visual appeal of toys inform curatorial collecting choices, of course, but equally important is what the toys reveal about the people who made them, sold them, bought them, or played with them. For example, from a mounted toy soldier whose brightly colored uniform and majestic horse immediately draw attention, we can tell the stories of the toymakers in Germany who fashioned these objects for children in America, about how toy sellers ordered their wares and encouraged parents to buy them, and ultimately about the children who reenacted real battles in miniature on the nursery floor. After sixty years, the initial three animals at AARFAM now keep company with more than two thousand toys.

Fig. 9. Whale, American, nineteenth century. Wood and paint; height 2 1/2, length 9 ¼ inches. A few simple carved lines delineate the facial features and scales along the whale’s back. Pressing on a hinged wooden piece that extends from the mouth along the bottom opens the whale’s mouth. Gift of the Museum of Modern Art from the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Collection

SUZANNE FINDLEN HOOD is curator of ceramics and glass at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum. KIMBERLY SMITH IVEY is senior curator of textiles and historic interiors. JAN GILLIAM is manager of exhibitions and associate curator of toys.