Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Ferdinand (and Rodney) the Bull

Walking toward the exit of the enchanting Pennsylvania Farm Show a few weekends ago, Tyler asked me for a final time whether I wanted to have my photo taken with a Brahman bull.

"No!" I exclaimed, feeling sheepish as young men dressed as cowboys carefully helped toddler-aged girls on and off Rodney's saddle.

What would people think of a grown woman getting up there?

I decided the chances of anyone I know catching me in action were slim, so I relented and proudly marched up to Rodney, mounted his saddle, and smiled broadly.

Within less than a minute, the cowboy handed my photo to me...


...and I handed him $10.

What's funny about this photo (aside from the fact that I got up in the saddle and had it taken) is that a few weeks later, as Tyler and I were going through some antique and vintage photos we had purchased on a recent trip through Virginia, I realized I had forgotten I picked up my circa 1940s twin posed on none other than a touring bull. (I don't know where animal rights' activists fall on this sort of thing, but I can tell you Rodney seemed happy and well fed.)


There are, of course, a few key differences. I did not "ride" side saddle, nor was I handed any faux pistols to "shoot" into the air. Both our bulls have names, but it wasn't until I googled "Ferdinand the Bull" did I learn that Ferdinand the Bull was a popular 1930s book by Munro Leaf about pacifism released shortly before the Spanish Civil War. (You can read a bit more about the book's cultural impact here.)


The book was so popular that even Disney adapted it into a film that won the 1939 Academy Award for Best Short Subject (Cartoon).

So the Ferdinand in my photo may be a live version of (or at least inspired by) the beloved book character. I might never know for sure, as I can't find any other vintage photos of Ferdinand or his bull cousins online. If Ferdinand was a well-known as Wikipedia would have me believe, surely this bull's name would have registered with the young lady forever immortalized in her beach photo.

Did you have your photo taken with Ferdinand, Rodney, or any other Farm Show/Carnival bull? Anyone have a soft spot for this book on their childhood reading list? Let me know about it in the comments!

Further Reading

It's hard to tell from a scan, but these early instant carnival snapshots look a lot like like tintypes in the flesh. In fact, they are not. You can read more about them in a previous post.


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

More on the Makeup Box

Scanning my Twitter feed back in December, I got excited when I spotted what looked like an early twentieth century photograph of a man wearing some dramatic makeup.


I immediately thought of the makeup box I blogged about a few months ago.


Sure enough, the Tweet pointed me toward an excellent blog post about theatrical makeup (and getups meant to evoke specific nationalities or ethnicities) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The author, Jessica Clark, is a professor of history at Brock University and is working on the early beauty industry (as her faculty profile explains). This is great to know, as I had a difficult time finding a ton of info I could use to figure out what kind of makeup my box contains. Jessica speculated that perhaps the "mystery makeup" is mustache cosmetic. Like any good connoisseur, though, she noted that it's hard to tell without seeing it in person.

Either way, I'm so happy to have learned more about this antiquing find!

Anyone want to do some analytical testing on the box's contents for me?

In the mean time, see you at the paper show in Elton, MD!

Monday, January 26, 2015

What a Mess

I love this photograph.


I can't quite make out who and what are pictured in the dozens of photographs arrayed on the wall. But that's besides the point. I love it because I can't help but think about the fact that a hundred years before this late nineteenth-century photograph was taken, it just wasn't possible to surround oneself with likenesses of one's friends and families in this way.

How did photography change the nature of remembering and sentimentality? 

I also love this photograph because it reminds me how much I wish more curators of period rooms in museums took a cue from "real life" and dared to fashion more cluttered and less sterile (if not physically, than perhaps intellectually) interpretive spaces. A question about how remembering and sentimentality changed over time probably would not be inspired by a period room featuring a token photograph on the wall. Indeed, it occurs to me that most members of the general public (as opposed to a historian/museum pro like me) get their history from house museums, not collecting and studying intently photographs of historic interiors. So it's really up to the keepers of museums to embrace what a mess history was and is and how fascinating and enlightening interrogating these messes can be.

One of the most memorable "messes" I saw in a period room was last winter at Colonial Williamsburg.


For me, at least, I started to think about the history of cleanliness, pest eradication, and even sex--not just the identities of the people who lived there in the colonial era.

So what are we waiting for? Find your museum's mess and stir it up. Or if you are doing this already (or have seen it done), tell me about it in the comments!

Further Reading

I wrote a bit about cleanliness and period rooms last February as it related to workshop period rooms. Check out that post about cleaning, inventorying, cataloguing, and reinstalling a duck decoy shop here.

Kitty Calash writes often and well about accessing "truth," "authenticity," and the like in historical interpretation at living history events and inside historic house museums at her blog, Confessions of a Known Bonnet-Wearer. Franklin Vagnone writes on some of these themes too. You can check out his stuff here.

For more examples of nineteenth-century interiors of people and their photographs, see Katherine C. Grier's Culture & Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery, 1850-1930 (1988).

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Material Culture Minute: Museum Fabrics to Wear

Last year, I mentioned an article from the 1970s that profiled a woman named Jenny Bell Whyte who made modern clothing out of historic coverlets. She established Museum Fabrics to Wear in 1971, and you can learn more about her philosophy and her craft in the article I have since tracked down thanks to an acquaintance. You can download the article from Americana by clicking here. According to her New York Times obituary, Whyte started making clothing from museum-type artifacts upon purchasing textiles the Brooklyn Museum had deaccessioned and sold at auction in 1975.

Many museum pros would blanch at the practice of making clothing from historic artifacts. But you have to admit, the skirts are fun and probably made from better-quality materials than you can find at most shops today.

I'll let you decide whether to keep your coverlets on your bed or your body!

Fashion shot from Jenny Bell Whyte's "Skirts From Coverlets," Americana (September/October 1978)

Sunday, January 4, 2015

The "Specter at the Right"

Flipping through the finalists of a frenzied photo shopping spree one day last fall, Tyler and I debated which CDV's, tintypes, snapshots, and cabinet cards to let go and which ones to add to our collection. Short on cash, I rejected a number of interiors (oh, those store interiors!) I would have bought ordinarily (perhaps they're still there). I'm not even sure if Tyler bought this one or if I did.

Photograph of a woman and her things, late-ninteenth or early-twentieth century
(Nicole Belolan's Collection)

Either way, I'm glad it's ours now. I loved it even without noticing the self-deprecating note scribbled on the underside:

"would be very good were it not for the specter at the right."


I beg to differ!

From my perspective as a historian, this photograph is not just good but great. Like many interior photographs of parlor-type spaces from the mid-late nineteenth century, every time I look at it, I see something new. (In her book Culture & Comfort, Katherine Grier defined a parlor as "a space within a private household in which families could present their public faces" [59]. There are a lot of great interiors in her book; do take a look!) In the end, the photo was never really meant to focus on the "specter" at the right, anyway. She's off to the side, perhaps trying to draw some attention away from herself and to her stuff. Prints, photographs, table linens, a floor covering, a desk, books, and more, though I am curious to know what she was pretending to be writing. And is that mourning dress?


We don't get enough information in this photo to figure out if she used this space for sleeping too or if it was part of a larger household. Nevertheless, all the objects the sitter and photographer managed to get into the frame help the specter tell us a little about herself and her time. This particular assemblage of stuff may be unique, but the genre of the interior photograph was not. There are many others out there featuring similar personal possessions that signaled a particular level of social standing and taste. Not all of the specter's contemporaries would have boasted over a dozen books tucked into bookshelves and scattered on tabletops or decorative prints on the walls. On the flip side, some would have had even fancier abodes.

I have a few more interiors from the same period I'll post in the coming weeks. Stay tuned.

In the mean time, what objects would you feature in your own home photograph? Would you choose to be photographed inside a particular room?

Further Reading

For more on nineteenth-century everyday life and aesthetics, start with Katherine C. Grier, Culture & Comfort: People, Parlors, and Upholstery, 1850-1930 (1988), Beverly Gordon, The Saturated World: Aesthetic Meaning, Intimate Objects, Women's Lives, 1890-1940 (2006), and Thomas J. Schlereth, Victorian America: Transformations in Everyday Life, 1876-1915 (1991). 

For a more recent look at domestic interiors and the stuff inside them, check out Jeanne E. Arnold et. al. Life at Home in the Twenty-First Century: 32 Families Open Their Doors (2014) (I read this in one sitting last August) and Peter Menzel's Material World: A Global Family Portrait (1995).

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Look, Touch, But You Don't Have to Buy: On Shopping at the Delaware Antiques Show with No Money

Fancy antiques shows like the Winter Antiques Show (benefits East Side House Settlement) in New York City have their critics, but I relish the opportunity to attend such shows. They bring you up close and personal with treasures from America's attics (or dealers' backlog of stock)--in some cases, the likes of which you have never seen and you might never see again (and you can touch, them too!).

With that in mind, let's take a virtual tour of what stood out for me at the Delaware Antiques Show (benefits educational programming at the Winterthur Museum) this past weekend.

In keeping with the feline theme from the last post, check out this family of cats made from discarded socks (probably early twentieth century)...


...and this striking late nineteenth-century painted portrait of a cat.

Peekaboo!



In keeping with the whimsical, here's a great early/mid twentieth-century pediatric dental cabinet.

Couldn't this be repurposed as a jewelry box?



For the Maryland crowd, here's a charming 1860s map (though I must say it looks better in person) of a proposed lumber business for a spot near Port Deposit done on silk. Collector, beware! Silk can be a difficult media for which to care.


And because I cannot help myself, here are my two favorite Berlin work examples from the show. The first, dated 1848, is in impeccable condition. The second, probably from the mid-late nineteenth century, features an original arrangement of a range of Berlin work designs.

Who said all Berlin work was the same?




I'll conclude this tour with a haunting and very unusual painting.


It seems that the portrait was painted around 1800 and that the inscription at bottom noting her passing--"Saturday morning, 5 o'Clock/20th. September, 1817"--was added later.

Wouldn't this be a great centerpiece for a show about mourning and remembrance in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? Several museum exhibitions showcase mourning as a central theme this season. They look great, but I can't help but be disappointed that mourning exhibitions so often cover the latter half of the nineteenth century. Have any shows featuring that theme attacked an earlier period?

I saw a lot more cool stuff and could go on forever, but I think you get my point. You don't need cash to enjoy these shows - just some curiosity.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Material Culture Minute: Kittens

While plowing through a new stock of photos at one of our favorite antique malls, Tyler and I came across this stunning tintype portrait of a girl and her kitten.

Tintype of girl and kitten, late nineteenth century (Nicole Belolan's Collection)

The girl looks self-assured and protective of her little charge. What better way to gain some responsibility as a child--not to mention companionship--than to care for another life? Having just recently cared for a starving mother cat and her four kittens, we immediately connected with this image.

Our "Momma Cat" and her little ones are healthy and happy now. They are living at homes of friends and friends of friends (we were't permitted to keep them where we live). And we hope their new owners are as smitten with them as we were--just as this girl seems to have been too.

"Momma Cat" (later known as Desire and now a third name!) and me

Further Reading

For more blogging about the material culture of pet keeping, check out Katherine C. Grier's blog here. She also wrote a book on the subject: Pets in America: A History (2006). Lots of the material for that book (and now the blog) are part of her own collection. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Material Culture Minute: "Are you a doctor?" Or, the Continuing Saga of Collecting Disability History

Combing the aisles of an antique mall in Chadd's Ford, PA, a few weeks ago, I was looking for something special. A friend, who was out and about on a pre-Labor Day 'tique hunt, had just emailed about a mid-late nineteenth-century wheelchair he stumbled across at this mall.

I have plenty of tintypes of people with disabilities, but I am lacking a wheelchair, I thought, and it looked like this one was (to borrow Sandra Lee's phrase) "semi-homemade."

With some extra money burning a hole in my pocket and few encumbrances on that sunny August afternoon, Tyler and I schlepped into Pennsylvania to find the artifact in question.


It didn't take long. We looked it over carefully and were pleased with it overall, but I wasn't happy with the sticker price. Reluctant to ask for a reduction, I nearly walked out and drove home. But thanks to Tyler's encouragement, I found it in myself to demand not the customary 10% discount by rather a whopping 20% discount.

What did I have to loose but a really awesome wheelchair?

To my shock (and the shock of the woman manning the counter), the dealer took my offer. The counter lady walked me back to the chair, slammed her hands on the crest rail, paused, looked at me, and asked in a thick, vaguely New Jersey accent, "What are you going to do with this?"

"Put it inside my office," I declared.

"Are you a doctor?" she asked. 

"No. I'm a historian," I said.

"Well, maybe it belonged to FDR," she offered.

"Hm," I muttered, rather ravenous and therefore in no shape to dole out a history lesson.

Instead, I took it home... 



...and tried it out.


Since we have limited space for large pieces of furniture and infinite space for tintypes and crutches, the next big purchase might only be justified if it's a good hundred years older than this puppy. But even then, I'd have a hard time deaccessioning this fascinating piece of the past from my collection. 

I've said it before, but I'll say it again. I never thought I'd be one of those people who collects what they study. But there's no going back now, and I wouldn't undo what I've done for the world.

Further Reading

Want to learn more about why I collect the material culture of disability history? Check out my blog post at the Disability and Industrial Society Blog.

Looking for more? On the web, see the Smithsonian's excellent online exhibition EveryBody: An Artifact History of Disability in America.

Finally, if you want to check out a physical book (I can't blame you), see Artificial Parts, Practical Lives: Modern Histories of Prosthetics, edited by Katherine Ott, David Serlin, and Steven Mihm. 


Sunday, August 10, 2014

It Still Smells like Crayon: On Purchasing a Circa 1890 Makeup Box

I find it hard to resist antiques I know probably should have been discarded years ago. The best example I have of that is this late nineteenth-century makeup box, which I acquired back in 2010.

"Our Special Make-up Box," Circa 1890
Stenciled label reads: A.M. Buch & Co./WIG MAKERS./119 N. 9th Street/PHILADELPHIA

This gem was made by A. M. Burch & Co., based at 119 N. 9th Street in Philadelphia. Described as "Our Special Make-up Box" in its 1890 trade catalogue I read thanks to The Athenaeum of Philadelphia, the original would have come stocked with the following:

"Heavy Black Tin, with tray, separate compartments, with Yale Lock and two keys. 70 cents a piece. The Actor's Make-up Box. A handsome decorated tin case containing the various article commonly used in 'making up' for the stage; will answer all ordinary requirements of any actor. It contains a set of Face Paints (9 colors) Light Flesh and Dark Flesh Face Powder. Powder-puffs, Hares foot, Cold Cream, Dry Rouge, Nose Putty, Grenadine Lip Rouge, Spirit Gum; Moustache Cosmetique; Black Wax, 2 camel's hair pencil's, 2 shades of Water Cosmetique, a light and a dark, with a brush for applying them. Mirror, scissors and an assortment of crepe hair. Price complete $4.00."

It seems like a lot of that is still in there, including grease paint (see sticks), not the mention a strong crayon odor.

Contents of wig box bottom
Assorted wig box contents

I can't tell for certain what's inside each of the tins. Some tins that remain inside this box are empty, others contain black lumps of mystery makeup.


Grease paint, it seems, became widely available by the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Until then, according to James Young's 1905 publication Making Up, actors used relatively little makeup. Or, perhaps more likely, they made their own greasy goo. Once someone found a way to produce grease paint on a large scale, the industry took off. The rise of grease paint spurred a flurry of turn-of-the-century how-to manuals on applying makeup (with an emphasis on grease paint) for the stage. According to Young, grease paint facilitated actors' being "real...even in the unreality of the supernatural." New stage lighting techniques may have illuminated actors' faces better, requiring heavier makeup such as grease paint to make the actors appear physically more "in character."

Another handbook, Charles Harrison's 1882 Theatricals and Tableaus Vivants for Amateurs, noted that, after the mid-nineteenth century, more and more plays featured contemporary characters. Makeup, therefore, became a more important part of the costume when the actor could not rely on recognizable historic-looking objects to represent specific historical figures (pirates, soldiers, prostitutes, etc.). As a result, making-up manuals and makeup trade catalogues, which seem to cater to amateur actors in particular (though not exclusively), emphasized creating the "right" skin shades or marks of age. Whether or not this was all true is unclear, but these writers and makeup manufacturers were certainly good marketers!

"Conventional Types," from James Young, Making Up (1905)

Back in 2010, I hemmed and hawed about whether or not to snatch this up. What would I do with rotting stage makeup? The box sits silent and shut on a shelf in my office, but it has character, and it evokes a good time. It's also a good artifact to use for care and handling training. (In this case, be sure to wear gloves when handing unknown substances!) Back in 1890, Burch advertised it as his "special" makeup box. It's now my special makeup box, dirt, grease, and all.

What else can I ask for in an antique?

When I first made this purchase, I promised you all I'd blog about a mystery object in "the coming weeks.It looks like I meant "coming years," as I'm just getting to this now. I hope it was worth the wait.

Anyone have any late nineteenth-century stage makeup ephemera out there? I'd love to learn more about collecting historic theatrical makeup!

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

A New Blog

In this snapshot (a recent acquisition-isn't it a great interior?),
it looks like our friend has an announcement to make!
Don't worry, Picking for Pleasure isn't going anywhere. But I do want to tell you about a new blog I started at my academic web site. As I explained in my first post, this new blog will address my thoughts on museums and cultural heritage, teaching, outreach, and research. I'll probably post there about as often I post here (once every 1-2 months, as time allows with my busy schedule), but I hope you find both of interest!

I started the blog off with a post on figuring out where General Howe landed his troops in present-day Maryland back in 1777 ahead of the American Revolution's Philadelphia Campaign (more interesting than it sounds!) and another post on the recent demolition of Delaware's 1760 Kux-Alrich house.

Let me know what you think!

You can make following easier by becoming an email subscriber or by adding the blog's address to a blog reader or news aggregator like Feedly.

And yes, there's another antiquing blog post in the works about something grimy but fascinating.

How's that for a teaser?

Friday, May 30, 2014

Material Culture Minute: "We Go from One Thing to Another"

There is often a fine line between what antique dealers sell and what they collect. In some cases, dealers display their personal collections inside their shops. And why not? They give patrons something else to look at, and the collection doesn't (as far as we know) take up valuable space inside the dealer's home.

Tyler and I recently encountered an impressive dealer collection at an antique store in Maryland. As we walked around the shop, we admired the hundreds of items the dealer had in his collection. We didn't need to ask about the collection ourselves to learn more about it, though. A regular beat us to it. In response, a store clerk explained:

Store clerk: "Well, Alfred's been buying oyster cans. You can see he's got them lined up there along the ceiling. He's really into them right now. We go from one thing to another."

Many of the oyster tins on display inside this antique shop looked like this beauty. On the reverse, the can assures customers that its contents are safe for consumption. Oyster packagers added such labels when the federal government enhanced its food safety laws around 1900. Legislators crafted many of these laws in response to a variety of food-related dangers that developed as the food processing industry expanded with little oversight and consumers were less and less likely to buy their food from the source (or a local middle man). In the case of oysters, deadly cases of typhoid fever (caused by salmonella) had been linked to the mollusk.
Oyster tin, Pride of the Chesapeake brand, 1920s, 7.25" x 6.56," 2007.0054.01 (Smithsonian)

Regular store patron: "Oh, I like them oyster crocks. Even seen them oyster crocks?"

Store clerk: "Oh, yeah, they're pretty nice. We just bought one the other day for $2,500."

Sure, that's a lot of of money. But many food containers (or advertising items, including stoneware crocks) weren't meant to or expected to last long. So I'm not surprised the market supports premium prices for items that would have been considered disposable or not long for this world when they were first used.

Perhaps the "new" crock looks something like this one, sold recently at Crocker Farm Auction for $345. According to Crocker Farm, the five gallon crock dates to about 1880 and is likely from Ohio. It is marked: “A. BOOTHS SOLID MEAT OYSTERS."

It's hard to say what this dealer's next thing will be. In the mean time, I'll keep an eye out for one of them oyster crocks.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Stocking Up

It's a real pleasure to receive an invitation to lecture on my M.A. thesis topic--Berlin work--five years after I finished that degree and three years after publishing an article based on that research. I must admit that I had that Spring 2015 lecture in mind upon purchasing Elizabeth Gotvals's 1847 sampler at my favorite antique shop near in Pennsylvania last weekend.


Wow, an identified and dated piece of Berlin work, made when Americans had only begun to embrace the needlework made using soft woolen threads and patterns printed in women's magazines and sold by the piece in fancy shops. I'm not sure if the backing is lignin-free and acid-free, so I'll probably carefully switch it out with something I can confirm is inert and therefore less likely to speed the sampler's inevitable deterioration. That said, it's in pretty good condition. I am simply thrilled to add this to my collection. But, frankly, it's always a good day when I have an opportunity to stock up on Berlin work specimens I can trot out for my lecture audiences (not to mention my students). Nothing beats learning from the objects themselves.

So what do we have here?

Elizabeth's work includes a traditional "sampler" design at the top featuring the alphabet and numerals in silk on plain-woven cotton canvas. The bottom portion features Berlin work designs (mostly floral) in wool. As I have explained before, needlework collectors tend to shy away from this stuff for a few reasons. Many people think it's 1) unoriginal and 2) gaudy. The wool's colors are too bright and therefore tasteless, some think. Critics also believe that the Berlin needlework designs, wrought using widely disseminated patterns as guides, embodies a lack or imagination on the part of the needleworkers.


I'll leave it up to you do decide for yourself how you feel about it.

In the mean time, I'll keep collecting it and lecturing about it.

Further Reading

For more about Berlin Work, see my article in Winterthur Portfolio: "'The Blood of Murdered Time': Ann Warder's Berlin Wool Work 1840-1865," Winterthur Portfolio 45, 4 (Winter 2011): 321-352.

I have also written about Berlin work on this blog before. Check out this post, "Berlin work: craft, kitsch, and fashion."

Berlin Work in Museums

In my region, some of my favorite Berlin work can be found at the Winterthur Museum and the Schwenkfelder Library and Heritage Center.