Celebrating the exotic and the ordinary

Editorial Staff Opinion

I first encountered the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities in the 1970s, when I was a graduate student at the University of New Hampshire. Wanting to learn more about the material world of seventeenth-century New England, I signed up for an architectural tour led by Abbott Lowell Cummings. It must have been in the fall. I remember it as one of those blue-sky days that we sometimes get in New England just after the leaves have fallen. Leaving Interstate 95, we drove down the long main street of Newbury, Massachusetts, toward the ancient cemetery and the nearby Coffin House, its name a memorial not to death but to the sober and hardworking family that built and added on to it for generations (see Figs. 4, 6). Though the Coffin House has charm in abundance, it was not the house itself that entranced me. It was the trek up the narrow stairs to the attic. Following the beam of Cummings’s flashlight, I discovered a world hidden in joints and rafters.
I grew up in an Idaho town founded in 1903. The old houses of my childhood were not antiques: they were simply out of date. Nobody had yet discovered romance in tin-topped cupboards or faded linoleum. If eastern Idaho had antiquities, they were hidden beneath potato fields, sagebrush, and outcroppings of lava. When I came to Massachusetts in 1960, I encountered a less spacious but more mysterious world. Drawn in by the remoteness of the colonial past and by the practicality of working with documents close at hand, I became a historian of early New England and eventually a historian interested not only in the colonial period but in its reinvention by nineteenth-century New Englanders.

To me, Historic New England will always be the “Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities.” I understand why the trustees decided to change the name. To a younger generation of New Englanders, the original name may have seemed fuddy-duddy, and as a staff member told me, the acronym SPNEA (pronounced spin-ay-uh) sounded like a disease. But to my mind the old label wonderfully captures the society’s origins and its mission. I like the old-fashioned sound of the word antiquities and the associations that swirl around it. In nineteenth-century usage, it not only meant artifacts but manners and customs. Hence the interest SPNEA’s founder, William Sumner Appleton (1874-1974), displayed in relics that exemplified lost ways of doing things. He was interested not only in fine houses and high-end furniture, but in crumbling outbuildings and battered pewter. And he wanted to know how things were made. That was the passion I picked up from the tour with Abbott Cummings, a sense that the past could be recovered through the hand of the craftsman.

Assembled over more than a century, Historic New England’s collections combine the exotic and the ordinary in unexpected ways, though perhaps what is more remarkable is the way the first collectors saw the exotic in the ordinary. Because the headquarters of Appleton’s society was in a city that modestly called itself “the hub of the universe,” it is not surprising to find in Historic New England’s collections antiques that are not only beautiful in their own right but embellished with patriotism and piety. Thus a paper label glued to the side of a pullout drawer on an eighteenth-century desk tells the story of an ancestor returning to his home in Boston after the evacuation of the British (Figs. 7, 7a). Reverence for first settlers and for those who fought in the American Revolution is expected, but it is often the mysterious survival of the artifact that gets the emphasis. In the hands of nineteenth-century antiquarians, happenstance survivals became sacred. Plymouth may have its rock, or what is left of it, but Historic New England has two chunks of worm-pocked bread that supposedly came over with the Puritans in 1630 and that are now encased like the toe bones of a saint in their own mahogany box (Fig. 5).

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.

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.