Mid-January NEAJ Digital
Nearly a dozen pieces of American slipware will be on public display for the first time since they were dug out of a brick-lined privy used by the patrons of one or more Philadelphia taverns. The dishes may have been used more for display than for serving, and were probably made by one or more French or German potters working in what is now the historic Old City district.
The privy was uncovered during excavations on the site of the new Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, where archaeologists recovered nearly 85,000 artifacts.
The display is called Buried Treasure: New Discoveries in Philadelphia Slipware from the Collection of the Museum of the American Revolution, and is sponsored by Ceramics in America, published by the Chipstone Foundation, and the Museum of the American Revolution. It accompanies the 2018 New York Ceramics & Glass Fair. The display is curated by Robert Hunter, editor of Ceramics in America, who provided the photographs. Sharp-eyed readers may recognize the central plate in the back row – it was on the cover of our November issue.
Did You Know?
Susan B. Anthony thought that bicycling gave women a level of freedom they had never before experienced. A bicycle put a woman in full control of her movements and, as a bonus, equipped her with a garment that had previously been strictly men-only – pants!
We praise here three women pioneers of what we might call “emancipatory bicycling.”
In 1894, at the age of 23, Annie Kopchovsky, also known as Annie Londonderry, responded to a challenge from two rich Boston men that no woman could travel around the world by bicycle in 15 months. She did it, proved them wrong, won their prize of $5,000, and earned the admiration of men and women everywhere.
One year later, Kittie Knox, a bi-racial seamstress and devoted cyclist, was refused entry to the annual meeting of the League of American Wheelmen, which was restricted to white men. In protest, she dressed in men’s clothing and calmly rode her bike in full public view.
Believing that true freedom could only happen if women assumed full responsibility for their actions (and their bicycles) in 1896 Maria Ward published Bicycling for Ladies. The book provided women with information on how to buy, repair and maintain their bicycles — activities that had previously been limited to the men in their lives.
Robert Tarule is a specialist on the artisans, particularly the woodworkers, of seventeenth-century New England, and underlying all his work is the assumption that the people who really made the Massachusetts Bay Colony the success that it ultimately became were the people whose work made live livable within it — the housewrights, the joiners, the shoemakers, the blacksmiths… Of course, big shots like the governors, the religious leaders and lawmakers had their parts to play, but the ones who really made a difference were the artisans. No settler ever wrote back to England begging his folks there to recruit new big shots, but many wrote pleading for more carpenters.
With his emphasis on the artisan as the engine of history, Rob told of a pivotal moment early in his career when he was head of “Mechanic Arts” at Plimoth Plantation. He and a colleague each set about replicating a seventeenth-century table to furnish the cottages in the Plantation village. They each used oak from the same tree, and they both worked at the same time and in the same conditions. But some months later, when the replicas were in place in the cottages, Rob happened to bump into one — and it wobbled. He immediately checked the other, and found that it was as tight as a drum. A pivotal moment for a historian of everyday life.
When that occurred, some 50 years ago, furniture historians knew a lot about the forms of seventeenth-century furniture and had a good general idea of how they were constructed by mortise-and-tenon joints. But they didn’t have an insider knowledge of construction techniques. Inspecting the survivors in museums or private collections did not tell them, for example, whether the joiner cut the tenons early or late in the construction process. With nothing to guide them, the two Plimoth joiners had made different choices: one cut the tenons early, the other late. It was the late-cut tenons that produced the wobbly table.
The conclusion that the two craftsmen finally reached was that the early-cut tenons had had time to dry and harden before being inserted into the mortices and pinned. The late-cut tenons, however, continued drying out after the mortices had been cut to receive them. They continued to dry and shrink, albeit by microscopic amounts after the joints were assembled – which was enough to make the joints loose and the table wobbly. So we now know that as soon as the framing member was cut to size, the seventeenth-century joiner immediately sawed the tenons at each end of it.
This resonated with a couple of points Rob had made to me in the past: oak carves best when green, so he uses green wood for the panels of a joined chest, but he has to size the framing for the panel so that it will hold the green oak in place and also will allow it to dry and shrink by as much as three-eighths of an inch.
So what, big deal, who cares, you might think. At one level, craftsmen like Rob cared, because his later career was making exact replicas of seventeenth-century furniture for museums and private collectors. On a broader level, however, we all care. What Rob’s hands-on historical research has shown is the way that joiners worked with the wood, allowing the nature of the wood to determine how they worked it. Another thing that Rob has told me is that hand tools encourage working with the wood, power tools work against it. Artisanal hand-work takes advantage of the natural strength of the wood, which is why seventeenth-century furniture is still in daily use today. Look at today’s manufactured furniture if you want a point of comparison!
Which brings me back to the history of big shots compared to the history of humble folk. What the big shots did is recorded in documents that are carefully preserved in institutional archives. The history of what the humble folk did, however, was incompletely documented, if at all But they left good evidence in what they made. But this sort of history requires an artisanal historian, not one stuck in archives all day.
So humble historians like Rob have to reconstruct it from the traces that remain. In my (humble) opinion deciphering how oak dries is every bit as skilled a job as deciphering archaic hand writing – and even more necessary, because fewer historian are equipped to do it.
Reference: Robert Tarule, The Artisan of Ipswich: Craftsmanship and Community in Colonial New England. John Hopkins University Press. The only book-length study of Thomas Dennis and the Ipswich in which he lived and worked.
John Fiske, Editor-in-Chief, New England Antiques Journal
“As we approach the culturally legitimized deviancy of festive drinking,” the researchers wrote in the British Medical Journal (no-one but a Cambridge educated scientist could have written that), “we suggest that size does matter. Look at the wine glass in your hand.”
Theresa Marteau, the director of the study, had been surprised to discover that wine glasses in the 18th century held a mere 66 milliliters. By 1990 the average capacity had increased to 232 milliliters, and today a glass holds a whopping 449 milliliters — nearly a sevenfold increase!
Dr Marteau is worried that this means that the Brits are damaging their health by drinking too much — and lays part of the blame on the US. Our importers want glasses to be larger, because “wine sold in larger glasses may have incentivized vendors to use them more.”
Like many scientists, the good Dr. Marteau is historically challenged. She seems unaware that the 18th-century English gentry were notorious for the amount of wine that they poured down their throats every evening. I would like to point out to her, very politely, that what matters is not the size of the glass, but how often you fill it. And in Georgian England servants stood behind wine lovers’ shoulders ready to replenish the glass the instant it had been upended. The landed gentry did not have to wave wildly to attract a waiter’s attention or fight their way up to the bar to get a refill. Consequently 18th-century glasses are small objects of beauty, 20th-century glasses are large objects of function.
The headline of the story in the New York Times, 12/14/17, was “Bigger Wine Glasses for Bigger Thirsts.” Wrong!
Pic of the Month
The Museum of the American Revolution recently bought a panoramic view (seven feet long, 14 inches high) of the Continental Army encamped in the Hudson Valley for $13,750 at Heritage Auctions.
Back in the Museum, Philip Mead, the Museum’s chief historian, was poring over the watercolor when he had one of those Aha! moments. A marquee tent standing on a rise looked vaguely familiar. The museum owns George Washington’s campaign tent, and now, Mead realized, it owned a painting of it, the only wartime depiction of the tent actually in use. Philip Mead exclaimed excitedly, “Here is the equivalent of a Google Street View…Looking at it, you feel you are walking right into the past.”
In front of the tent is an elaborate neo-classical wooden entrance which is described in some documents but has completely disappeared. Finally, we know what it looked like.
The panorama was unsigned, but the museum’s research revealed that it had been painted by Pierre Charles, L’Enfant, a French military engineer who later planned Washington D.C. It is the centerpiece of an exhibition that opened on January 13th.
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