Saturday, May 28, 2011

"You don't have to have everything you see."

...particularly at a show that is generally over-priced. Despite this disappointment, I found one treasure worthy of the Belolan Collection of Empty Space. Back in September, Tyler and I ventured to the Henry's Field Antiques Show, a fundraiser for the Gonshoppen Historians in southeastern, PA. (This group puts on a great "craft" weekend during the summer. Go and watch craftsmen roll cigars and split stones, and enjoy some authentic Pennsylvania yummies!) There were temptations along the way...

...namely, a yard sale and a ferret show, but we abstained and followed the signs to Henry's Field.

The show was very similar to the New Castle Antiques Show I attended in late August, 2010. Both were held out of doors, and both featured the same type of objects--a lot of decorative "folk" objects and some furniture. Little jumped out at us, although I spoke to a dealer about a piece of Berlin work marked 1875 I wrote about here a few posts ago. If you recall, he suggested that the individual who made the Berlin work "didn't have a lot of skill."

At any rate, after a leisurely look through the show, Tyler and I noticed this small treasure:

As I reached for the snuff box, Tyler plucked it off the shelf and out of my reach. He removed the lid and revealed a note:

The inscription on "LYMAN S. LINSON's" stationary reads as follows in ink: "My great grandmother's/date 1796 or earlier./Anna Corwin Chase."


But I was suspicious. The lovely lady on the lid’s upper surface sports a fashion more in line with fashions dating from 1800-1815 as opposed to the fashions dating from the mid-1790s. This schematic gives you a good idea as to how bust lines and silhouettes more generally changed between the 1796 and 1815 (See Janet Arnold's Patterns of Fashion: Englishwomen's Dresses & Their Construction for a better schematic). Despite the discrepancy, the note seemed authentic, and the wear looked legitimate. Priced at $75, though, I wasn't ready to bite.

Tyler and I walked back to the car, and "You don't have to have everything you see," a sentiment I heard one woman express to another while we were walking around the show, was ringing in my head. Surely, I don't need everything I see, but I could get something. We discussed the box, its seemingly legitimate inscription (which would be fun to research), and its quaint imagery. We discussed that neither of us had had much experience working closely with composite or papier-mâché snuff boxes, which made me hesitate to buy something about which I knew little. But Tyler reminded me that I tend to be overly suspicious of objects’ authenticity (like any good historian!). Admittedly, I was also disappointed that I hadn't found too many tempting objects, and I wanted to bring something new home.

After a few minutes, I decided to purchase the box. I acquired it for $60 rather than the $75 tag price. When I told Tyler, he thought that I had made a lower offer. I explained that, instead, I was given a break because the dealer was kindly. In other words, as Tyler put it, I "got something by sort-of-not-really bargaining, as usual."

Fair enough. Let the fun begin!

Let's start with the object itself. Of course, like any container, one could use it for just about anything that could fit inside of it. But it looks like similar extant snuff boxes, and it still has a residue around the edges that looks like residue I saw in other contemporaneous snuff boxes. (I do not advocate taking snuff, but see this modern illustration to get an idea as to how it was done in the past.) In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, like many objects, people purchased snuff boxes made from a wide range of materials and made into a variety of sizes. Silver, gold, name it, it was available. This circa 1825 snuff box features a similar design: an image on a dark ground. Snuff boxes of this size were likely used on tabletops.

It seems that Chase's box was made from a molded composite core covered with papier-mâché, decorated with paint, and finished with clear varnish. This particular type of snuff box was turned out in large numbers in Germany in particular. Here is a detail shot of one of the worn edges:

Below I posted two similar contemporaneous examples at the V&A. According to the object file for the first snuff box pictured below, by 1815, printed lids were more common than painted lids. Nina Fletcher Little published several similar American examples published in her book Neat and Tidy: Boxes and Their Contents Used in Early American Households (1980).

This wood and papier mâché snuff box was made circa 1840 in England, possibly by Henry Clay. The lid features a "transfer-printed engraving by the watercolour painter Theodore Lane (c.1800-1828) from Pierce Egan's book The Life of an Actor printed in 1825." Accepted by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1996, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, S.607:1&2-1997

This papier mâché snuff box was made circa 1820, probably by Henry Clay in Birmingham, England. The lid was probably painted by Samuel Raven. The portrait is of the actress Mrs. Honey who lived circa 1775 to 1847. Accepted by HM Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum, 1996, The Victoria and Albert Museum, London, S.611:2-1997.

Back to the young woman with a book or notebook in profile on Chase’s box. Visual culture ranging from paintings to needlework featured women with books for centuries. In America, the woman with a book motif was popular, particularly in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Mary Kelley's Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic (2006) explores how education in America facilitated women’s entry into a civil society, or “publics expect those dedicated to the organized politics constituted in political parties and elections” such as reform organizations (5). She includes several portraits of women depicted with their books in the early Republic era (circa 1780-1830). For example, see this circa 1828 portrait of Hannah Adams at the American Antiquarian Society. In addition to paintings, needlework also featured visual depictions of women reading or with a book. See, for example, this circa 1810-1820 silk, watercolor, and ink panorama at the Saint Louis Art Museum. For another contemporaneous example, see General Schumacker's Daughter, a circa 1812 pen and ink watercolor completed by Jacob Maentel.

It's hard to say whether a professional or an amateur painted Chase's woman. I am inclined to think that perhaps Chase herself executed the image on the box. In comparison to the professional example depicted above, the image of Chase’s box appears to be rendered more crudely. Either way, Chase surely valued reading, just like many of her early Republic sisters about whom Kelley wrote in her book.

Aside from what we can assume about her proclivities for books, what else can we figure out about Anna Corwin Chase? She was not easy to track down at first, and some of the family history remains uncertain. First, "Anna Chase," "Anna Corwin," and "Anna Corwin Chase" did not show-up using Ancestry Library Edition. Alas, this wonderful resource is not failsafe! Undaunted, I worked backwards from Lyman S. Linson. Using a combination of his name and Chase's name in internet search queries, I found Linson listed in some digitized books as well as Chase and her more immediate family members included in some genealogy that someone had posted through rootsweb. Here is the maternal line, starting with Linson's great grandmother:

Anna Chase, b. 1768, married Asa Corwin (b. 1766) on 6 April 1788
Huldah Corwin, b. 1798 in Pennsylvania, and d. 1891
Maria Louisa Knapp, b. 1828 in New York
Lyman Sewall Linson, b. 1856 in New York

Anna Chase Corwin and her husband Asa Corwin, a farmer, had their first two children, Joashua Clark Corwin (b. 1788) and Richard Warren Corwin (b. 1791) in Abquebogue, New York, on the eastern end of Long Island. According to a Federal Population Schedule as digitized by Ancestry Library Edition, the next child, Lucinda Corwin (b. 1794), lived her early years in Orange County, New York, a few counties northwest of New York City. After Lucinda, David Corwin was born in 1796 near Albany, New York, several counties farther up the Hudson River. Two years later, Huldah Corwin was born in Pennsylvania. In 1802, Philip was born in New York. By mid-century, Philip was a farmer in Pike County, in northeastern Pennsylvania. George Corwin was born in 1804 in New York and was a farmer in Flint, Michigan, by the mid nineteenth-century. Asa, Jr., was born in New York in 1807 and became a Pennsylvania farmer. Finally, Lydia Ann Corwin was born in 1818 in New York. If Anna did, in fact, give birth to all nine of these children, she had children over thirty years.

I confirmed these birth dates and locales through rootsweb and Ancestry Library edition, but it is possible that some of the information is not accurate.

As for Lyman, according to a book titled New York university: its history, influence, equipment and characteristics, with biographical sketches and portraits of founders, benefactors, officers and alumni, Volume 2 (R. Herndon Company, 1903), available through Google Books, Lyman was the son of William Van Keuren Linson and Maria Knapp Linson, and he graduated from New York University in 1876. His profile reads as follows (click here to view Lyman's portrait):

"Born in New York, 1856; studied in public schools and Mount Washington Collegiate Institute; graduated A.B., New York University, 1876; A.M. in 1879; studied law with class of 1881, University of Pennsylvania, but did not graduate; in publishing house, 1876-81; railroad auditor's office, 1882-83; Prefect at Girard College, 1883-84; in bank, 1885-90; in various business enterprises in Albion, N.Y." (pg. 180)

The census corroborates much of this information. According to the 1880 United States Federal Census, as digitized via Ancestry Library Edition, at the age of 23, Lyman was living within the Parke household in New York, New York, and was working as a clerk. According to the 1910 U.S. Federal Census, at the age of 53, Lyman was living as a border within the Miller household in Albion, New York. Ten years later, Lyman was the head of his household in Albion, and he was listed as living with his wife Mabel and two children named Robert C. Linson (age 8) and Elizabeth S. Linson (age 2). A 1905 NYU publication listed Linson as being in a partnership called Morgan & Linson selling "country produce, building materials, etc.," in Albion (pg 165). Finally in 1930, Linson, his wife, and their two children were listed in the U.S. Federal Census as living in Mabel's place of birth: West Virginia.

Beyond these basic vital statistics, without traveling to the local repositories that might contain more genealogical information on the family, it is difficult to speculate more about Anna’s and Lyman’s everyday lives. Both lived in several places throughout their lifetimes, making the survival of this humble snuff box all the more amazing. The box’s value and utility changed as the box changed hands, but no matter how its owners used it over the years, the box retained its association with Anna over several generations.

Now, Anna Corwin Chase’s snuff box is safe with me, displayed in a place of honor between other antiquing treasures, including this papier-mâché snuff box Tyler picked up last February for mere dimes at a Pennsylvania tag sale:

Alas, not all snuff boxes come with histories of ownership inscribed in ink. Some provenance must be left to the imagination.

Further Reading

Mary Kelley, Learning to Stand and Speak: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic: Women, Education, and Public Life in America's Republic (Chapel Hill: Published for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, Williamsburg, Virginia, by the University of North Carolina Press, c2006).

Nina Fletcher Little, Neat and tidy: Boxes and Their Contents Used in Early American Households (New York: E. P. Dutton, c1980).


  1. This was fascinating! I really learn so much when I come to your blog. Your breadth of knowledge never ceases to amaze me, either. Your genealogical researching skills are also impressive! Great post!

  2. Very interesting article. Informative. I've purchased several papier mache boxes similar to these and find them unique and historic. Greetings from New Orleans.