Walking toward the Wagner Free Institute of Science near Temple University in Philadelphia in October, I was a little nervous. My friend Hannah and I thought we were going to go back in time and never return.
Why the concern, you ask?
We attended an annual magic lantern slide salon, of course. You can think of magic lanterns as the pre-cursor to slide carousels, projectors, and perhaps even motion pictures. When they first became popular in the eighteenth century, magic lanterns projected their scenes on glass onto walls or other backgrounds using an artificial light source. In the nineteenth century, as the Brooklyn Museum explained, the slides and the machine provided a way for lots of people to learn from the new photographic medium. (Not all slides are of photographs, though.) Modern machines, like the one we saw at the festival, are electrified. The projector we saw holds two glass slides at a time that are swapped out manually. The Wagner was an exciting place to attend such a salon, as the auditorium dates to 1865 and has hosted many a magic lantern presentation.
I learned a lot from this event. Quite frankly, I thought the presentation would be more transformative (see reference to concern about going back in time). But in fact, the visual experience of seeing the slides merely echoed projector or slide carousel presentations. The images did appear more crisp than what contemporary projectors seem to be capable of reproducing. What I found most interesting was the breadth of lantern slide collections in the region and how underutilized they are as archival sources. There may be good reason for this. If you ever handle these slides, you sense immediately how fragile they are. You drop it, it breaks (speaking from experience at an antique mall last year).
But that did not stop these archivists from institutions as varied as the Chemical Heritage Foundation, Penn Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, and Philadelphia Museum of Art from generously bringing their fragile collections to the Wagner and putting on a show. Some archivists used historic scripts. Others created wholly contemporary interpretations of old slides. Some mixed the two. We learned about how workers at the Stetson hat manufactory, which was based in Philadelphia, made its famous hat. We took a tour through the galleries at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. And we all cooed over a basket of baby lions born at the Philadelphia Zoo.
The festival was part of Archives Month Philly. Looking forward to more fun events next year, even if we do not go back in time or confront magic. This was, after all, held at an Institute of Science.
George Washington (1732-1799) is famously inscrutable. And yet I found him, hanging on the wall at the Powel House (b. 1765) in Philadelphia. Rather, I found his shadow in the form of a silhouette, pencil lines and all. On the reserve, the silhouette reads, “General Washington, a bad likeness.”
This “bad” likeness breathes life into the Powel House’s withdrawing room but also into Washington. Samuel Powel (1738-1793), Philadelphia mayor from 1775-1776 and 1789-1790, made the portrait himself, in 1787. Known as a hollow-cut silhouette, Powel crafted it by tracing Washington’s shadow on a light-colored substrate, cutting away the outline, and backing it with blue paper after socializing over tea with Washington’s brother John (1736-1787) and none other than Benjamin Franklin (1706-1790).
Fun among friends. What’s more personal than that?
My original purpose for visiting the Powel House was to check out an example of a Philadelphia “ballroom” that probably inspired party rooms like the one at my beloved George Read House in New Castle, Delaware. It was great to see this comparable space in person and to get a sense of what Read was likely trying to replicate or imitate in his New Castle Home.
To my delight, I found much more than some nice rooms at the Powel house. I also found George Washington.
In my experience, the UNESCO people tend to make good choices. Indeed, it’s not every day you get to tour a complex of buildings where craftsmen, thinkers, and family worked and lived from the sixteenth century through the mid-nineteenth century. (According to the UNESCO nomination, there would have been about 140 other individuals and/or businesses in Antwerp’s print trades in the mid-sixteenth century.) Christopher Plantin served as the House’s “master” from 1555-1589, and his son-in-law Jan I Moretus served as master from 1589-1610. See the UNESCO nomination for more on the other Plantin House masters. Shortly after the firm printed its last book in 1866, the site became a museum. Visitors have been enchanted by it ever since, and you don’t have to have completed a PhD exam field in print culture and history of the book to appreciate this museum’s ability to transport visitors to another time and place.
Plantin-Moretus has a lot going for it, including very comprehensive business archives and galleries. (Unfortunately, we were too exhausted by the end of the workshop-house tour to enjoy the galleries properly.) It’s difficult to summarize why I liked the museum so much–why, at the expense of sounding a bit dramatic, I feel like I left my soul there. First, the Museum retains a workshop full of the family’s printing presses (including the two oldest extant in the world), type, and other tools.
It also boasts the multi-room library of several generations of humanists (a fancy term for people interested in natural rather than supernatural concerns and whose intellectual interests spanned multiple disciplines).
These material survivals virtually tell the story of the site and the people who lived and worked there themselves. Perhaps I feel so taken with the place because I really felt the presence of the people who had used the objects and spaces there. Sure, the things I want to see more of in house museums and workspace period rooms–like dirt and disorder–weren’t there. But it’s hard not to imagine a journeyman moving about the print shop managing apprentices when just about all the tools he used (including sunlight streaming through the tall windows) are staring you in the face.
The Museum offers a great audio tour too that provides visitors with succinct discussions that enhance rather than detract from the already dense sensory experience. I particularly enjoyed going into some detail about the gilt leather wallpaper (much of it reproduced since gilt leather is difficult to preserve) this prosperous family installed throughout the workshop-house, a luxury that was a speciality of craftsmen in nearby Mechelen. The audio guide really made you take a close look.
And yet the interpretation of only one bedchamber and what seems to be a reproduced kitchen (a room that, according to the guidebook, was a wash house in Plantin’s lifetime) spurred questions about domestic life and work at the site. My curiosity was only heightened when I read in the visitor guide that two of Plantin’s daughters (Margaretha and Martina) married their father’s “most important assistants,” thereby cementing their importance as consorts and also business partners. That says a lot about how permeable the walls and doors here really were.
Perhaps I feel like I left my soul there since past inhabitants most certainly left theirs there too.
En route to our hotel the first night we spent in Brussels, Belgium, this past June, I stopped dead in my tracks in front of a store window despite the fact that I was more than ready to hit the sack after surviving our marathon day of trans-Atlantic travel and touring. It didn’t take long for Tyler to realize why I was so engrossed. There, in the middle of Brussels, a Bandagiste (or a store that sells orthopedic and related supplies) displayed a mix of historic and contemporary examples of objects that feature (along with their users) prominently in my dissertation. From crutches to wheelchairs, the Bandagiste had it all, beckoning prospective customers (and one historian) in one of the busiest parts of Brussels.
Tyler and I planned to visit specific sites in Belgium and the UK on our trip, but I hadn’t really picked out any disability-related stuff to see.
It turns out it didn’t matter, because it found me.
On a train from Bruges to Brussels, for instance, I overheard one woman explain to her travel companions that there is a rail worker at one of the stops she frequents who is notorious for grumbling about providing the moveable ramp that links the platform to the train for her wheelchair. She also recounted how a friend’s commute lengthened by a half hour recently because the station he used was no longer accessible. Their anecdotes were endless. And during the remainder of our trip abroad, the insights kept coming.
The amputated limb became a focal point for many likenesses made of Nelson even after he died from wounds received at the Battle of Trafalgar during the Napoleonic Wars in 1805. Check out this late ninteenth-century decanter below, for instance. It was difficult to choose which artifact to include here. Nelson adorned a lot of stuff, suggesting how much people liked having him around. Think George Washington or Abraham Lincoln in the American context.
Getting better acquainted with Nelson suddenly made Desire seem less unusual (but not less unique).
And so in honor of the twentieth anniversary celebration of the Americans With Disabilities Act, here are some of my recent #disabilitystories (the social media “hashtag” for today) from abroad. My encounters with disability history and material culture on our recent trip started with that Bandagiste but did not end with Nelson. More importantly, they won’t end back in the States, either. I can’t wait to dive back into the archives today, on the lookout for hard-to-find but oh-so-fascinating early American #DisabilityStories.
Politely traipsing through privately-owned early nineteenth-century houses in Historic New Castle, Delaware, last May, I enjoyed the opportunity to take a peep as some strangers’ lives (and their glorious views of the Delaware River).
In its 91st year, A Day in Old New Castle traditionally supported historic and other non-profit organizations based within the “old” city limits. As the New Castle Historical Society’s New Castle audio tour explains, the National Historic Landmark District, established in 1967 and expanded in 1984, includes buildings associated with land and events surrounding early Dutch and English settlement.
This vintage Day in Old New Castle ticket in my collection speaks to that European settlement history.
I love New Castle so much I lived there for about two years while I was completing my PhD coursework, and I would consider moving back if the opportunity presented itself. New Castle boasts one of my favorite historic houses, the Read House, which is run by the Delaware Historical Society. The house, which you can tour, is well-documented and preserved. The house’s history is fascinating, but don’t miss the breath-taking view of the Delaware River from the second floor.
The “Day in Old New Castle” (DIONC) tour allows visitors to check out the homes and/or gardens a handful of current residents choose to open to the public for a few hours during this annual tradition. For the next few years, DIONC will be particularly critical for introducing Delaware’s new National Park (dedicated in 2013) to the public. The park encompasses the Woodlawn Tract (a patch of undeveloped land open to the public in northern New Castle County preserved by nineteenth-century cotton mill owner William Bancroft), the New Castle Court House (built in the 1730s, making it the oldest extant court house in America, and served as Delaware’s capitol building until the capital moved to Dover), the New Castle Green (the beautiful public space in the heart of Historic New Castle), and the Dover Green (plotted in 1717 and surrounded by historic sites such as the place where DE delegates met to agree to ratify the Constitution in 1787).
The sites that comprise the new National Park and the well-maintained private homes are, without a doubt, historically significant. But like all places, there is a lot more to Old New Castle than buildings associated with founding fathers. Perhaps the one that intrigues me most because it is now condemned and in danger of being demolished is the Mouth Salem Methodist Episcopal Church at 138 E. 4th Street.
Places like this deserve more attention than they get.
Built to replace the original 1857 wood frame worship space, this 1878 Gothic Revival structure served as New Castle’s second black church. (Bethany UAME Church had been established first in 1817.) According to a National Register nomination prepared in 1983, the church retains some original furnishings such as carved wooden clergy stalls. The surrounding burying ground at Mount Salem includes several gravestones that commemorate African American soldiers—such as this one for Jerry Myers–who served in the Civil War.
Now, as the notice affixed to the front door suggests, the Church is endangered.
The New Castle City Board of Health condemned the church last February due to “visual verification of mold infestation caused by moisture and flooding in the basement area” and “a strong odor of mildew through the structure,” as the notice states. The notice also explains that there is “probable cause to the believe that the church may be structurally compromised.” The Church’s congregation worships elsewhere.
I don’t know what progress has been made in mitigating or otherwise addressing the Board of Health’s orders. And one can’t help but wonder what will become of the civilians’ and soldiers’ graves here too. Next year’s Day in Old New Castle, then, may include one less building and therefore one less opportunity to learn about African American history in Delaware.
One might conclude African American history sites in Delaware face a bleak future. Yet the Delaware Historical Society recently established the Center for African American Heritage. I hope initiatives like will prevent future deterioration of Delaware sites associated with African American history. So here’s to a bright future for raising public awareness of and appreciation for African American history in the First State.
“I don’t like the phrase ‘hidden’ New York,” explained a knowledgable and friendly museum staff member at a New York City house museum two weeks ago when I declared that most people just don’t think to visit house museums in NYC when you have The Met, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Morgan beckoning with their Egyptian mummies, stuffed bisons, and Elizabeth I signatures. I was asking for more house museum recommendations (aside from the guys I’ve visited [and have enjoyed thoroughly] already such as the Tenement Museum and the Merchant’s House Museum). As my jaunt with Tyler through the upper reaches of the island taught us yesterday, she was right. This part of New York isn’t “hidden.” There are plenty of people living and working here. That said, it’s certainly different, and it’s way uptown.
Why bother with this historic house hunt?
First, we found treasures heretofore unknown to us. We started at Alexander Hamilton’s Grange (completed 1802).
Hamilton lived on his 32-acred Harlem estate for two years until that fateful day Aaron Burr fatally wounded Hamilton in a duel. The National Park Service moved the Grange in 2008 to give it the green space and visibility it deserves. I love the juxtaposition of the historic house with the twentieth-century behemoth next to it.
Check out the moving process with this fascinating simulation from the New York Times. The house had been moved previously in the nineteenth century, but in the more recent move, smart people had to slide the home over St. Luke’s Episcopal Church. This house belonged to a founder, and its importance can be claimed easily on that fact alone. But it’s also important because it led us to St. Luke’s, a typical-looking late nineteenth-century Protestant church. I noticed one of those thermomoters posted to show how much money had been raised to repair the roof. It was pathetically low, so I fished out a $5 from my wallet, went inside, walked toward the altar and placed my cash inside a cookie tin perched on a chair. We took a good look around and quickly realized that the roof needs to be fixed but so too does the plaster, the paint, the floors…
The church was filled with locals milling around, preparing for some community event. This one lovely building clearly means something to these people. I hope they reach their fundraising goal.
Built in 1784, it’s one of the oldest standing domestic structures in Manhattan. The interpretation is first-rate, complete with small changes to the self-guided tour depending on the season. The upper level rooms interiors evoke the 1916 interpretation of the eighteenth century (that’s when the museum was established – I hope they keep it this way), and the lower level rooms evoke a late twentieth- and early twenty-first century interpretation of the late eighteenth century. What I loved best about this site was its Colonial Revival history. It includes a relic room chockfull of items gathered to furnish the kitchen when the house became a museum in 1916 and archaeological relics from the same era.
On the way back to the train, we couldn’t help but gawk at the lively sidewalk flea market (probably not genteel enough for the Upper East Side).
And an amazing general store.
Need a curtain?
Some “fine art”?
Well, whom am I to judge – this store probably makes a killing.
At any rate, we went back down town toward the Grange. This time, we hit up the Morris-Jumel Mansion, built in 1765–yep, before the Revolution. So it’s important because of its age, for sure, and it helps that George Washington slept here. The first floor is quite stunning. In midtown, it’s hard to remember that there are buildings originally constructed to be private homes that boast enough space for a good party.
But again, visiting led us to another heretofor unknown treasure: Sylvan Terrace.
Built in the 1880s, “working class” individuals and families likely lived at the quaint Sylvan Terrace homes back in the day. Perhaps they do today, too, but a little research revealed that renting one of these beauties would set you back several thousand a month, and buying around a million.
We took in the view and headed back toward the car. If we had visited our usual haunts (which we will always love), we would not have seen these different, comparatively secluded yet historic parts of Manhattan. Next time, we’re off to hunt-up some of the historic house museums in Flushing, Queens.
Some time in the 1650s, a Dutch soldier named Peter Alrich was shipwrecked off New York. (At the very least, his luck ran out – I have found conflicting secondary sources). Instead of giving up on starting a new life in the colonies after what was probably a harrowing experience, he stayed in the “New World” and bought some land to farm near present-day Port Penn, Delaware, a town founded in 1763 by David Stewart. Yes, that’s right. Alrich was bopping around Delaware before William Penn (1644-1718), the man from England who acquired present-day Pennsylvania and Delaware from King Charles II.
Peter’s grandson built a brick house on the land in 1760. The house, up until recently, was one of a few in Delaware that predated the Revolutionary War. In the nineteenth century, the Alrich family sold that house to the Kux family. In the 1990s, the Kux family sold the house and 340 acres of land to Delaware Wild Lands, Inc. According to the Delaware News Journal, the owners were under the impression that the eighteenth-century home would be preserved.
For a few years, Delaware Wild Lands rented the home to a caretaker. That arrangement ended around the time the septic system failed. Uninterested in restoring the home’s septic system, Delaware Wild Lands applied for a permit to demolish the home from the New Castle County Historic Review Board. I attended the meeting back in August when the Board considered the application. I was there with my partner Tyler to support the preservation of the home along with other historians, archaeologists, and preservationists from the region. It turns out there were plenty of Kux-Alrich advocates in the room.
And why not? We wanted to speak in favor of preserving this home. To me, this seemed to embody a central part of the Delaware Wild Lands’ noble mission to conserve and manage the site’s “biodiversity” and “traditional uses of the land.”
If farming and building a house in 1760 aren’t “traditional uses of the land,” I’m not sure what are.
But now, that house is just that – a pile of documents. Some time around May 27, 2014, after the New Castle County review board could no longer sit on the permit request, Delaware Wild Lands razed the 1760 home. That means it was destroyed.
So how do we prevent this from happening again? First, I should note that not all historic places or things can or should be saved. As a cultural heritage professional, I make decisions about what should be discarded as well as preserved on a daily basis. I’ve probably made some decisions future historians will find inane. It’s difficult to determine now what’s worthy of preserving for the future. But in the case of the Kux-Alrich House, no one has persuaded me that the house, its landscape, and all of us would be better off without it. What’s a landscape without its history or a history without its landscape?
Let this be a lesson to us that we should remember the interconnectedness of conserving the land and preserving the stuff on it. We can start by doing a better job cultivating environmental and cultural stewards from a young age before we loose more traces of what it meant to be human in Delaware. People shaped what comprises Delaware Wild Lands just as much as they shaped that house. We can learn and benefit from both.
I wish I had learned more about this place before it was destroyed. I will always wonder what it was like to walk into that house and admire the views of the wetlands, the marshes, and the fields. Why did Alrich pick that spot? Why did his grandson stay? What made that house a home and a workspace? What was the house’s relationship to the land around it? Why did one of the last men who lived there love the house and the land so much that he had his ashes spread there?
I don’t know, and I never will.
For more about the history of the Alrich House, see the following articles and blog posts: