Finding George Washington

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.”

George Washington's Silhouette by Samuel Powel, 1787, In Situ at the Powel House in Philadelphia, PA
George Washington’s Silhouette by Samuel Powel, 1787, In Situ at the Powel House in Philadelphia, PA

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.

Further Reading and Looking

Visit the Powel House, a Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks property. You can see the original Powel House interiors at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Preservationists and antiquarians “saved” them when the Powel House faced demolition in the early twentieth century.

For a technical analysis of historic silhouettes, see Penley Knipe, “Paper Profiles: American Portrait Silhouettes,” Journal of the American Institute for Conservation Online, Vol. 41, No. 3, Article 1: 203-223.

For a history of silhouettes made and used among Philadelphia Quakers in the early republic, see Anne Verplank, “The Silhouette and Quaker Identity in Early National Philadelphia,” Winterthur Portfolio 43, 1 (Spring 2009): 41-78.

For a list of portraits of Washington made from life, see “Life Portraits of George Washington,” George Washington’s Mount Vernon, http://www.mountvernon.org/george-washington/artwork/life-portraits-of-george-washington/.

Mount Vernon recently acquired a silhouette of Washington made in 1791. Read more about that likeness, for which Washington probably did no sit, here.

Check out historian Joseph M. Adelman’s thoughtful essay, “George Washington, Man of Mystery,” for a reflection on Washington’s mythic stature in American life.

Learn about what it takes to choose and be the “official” George Washington in this fascinating documentary, Being George.

#DisabilityStories Abroad

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.

One Portion of Fremineur-Medical's Window Display in Brussels, Belgium (June 2015)
One Portion of Fremineur-Medical’s Window Display in Brussels, Belgium (June 2015)

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.

At the Royal Maritime Museum in Greenwich, I immersed myself in the material culture of the cult of Britain’s maritime hero Horatio Nelson. I knew a surgeon (turns out to have been Thomas Eshelby, a ship’s surgeon) amputated Nelson’s arm after it was hit at Santa Cruz in 1797, but I was not aware how central the amputation became to Nelson’s identity and everyone else’s idea of him.

Lemuel Francis Abbott, Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805 , Oil on Canvas, 1799, National Maritime Museum Collections.
Lemuel Francis Abbott, Rear-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson, 1758-1805 , Oil on Canvas, 1799, National Maritime Museum Collections

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.

Decanter  Depicting Horatio Nelson,  Circa 1870, National Maritime Museum Collections
Decanter Depicting Horatio Nelson, Circa 1870, Czech Republic, National Maritime Museum Collections (Walter Collection)

While perusing the Nelson gallery, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Desire Tripp, an eighteenth-century Newport Rhode Island working girl who highlighted her amputated arm on a gravestone it shared with her two babies.

Heck, I made her arm a focal point of my own arm.

Me, My Arm's Arm, and Tyler at Gettysburg, PA (Spring 2015)
Me, My Arm’s Arm, and Tyler at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (Spring 2015)

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.

What’s your #DisabilityStory?

Further Reading

Click here to learn more about the National Museum of American History’s (the Smithsonian) initiative to share #DisabilityStories today. Everyone is encouraged to participate.

A related initiative is the ADA Legacy Project. The web site will give you information about all the ADA 25 celebrations that are going on this year.

And if you haven’t seen it already, check out the Smithsonian’s excellent online exhibition (EveryBody) featuring its smashing collection of disability history-related artifacts.

And be sure to navigate over to the fantastic project in Britain called Disability and Industrial Society. I wrote a  blog post for them a few years ago about what I learned from collecting disability history.

To learn more about Desire Tripp and her arm’s grave stone, check out the essay I wrote about it at Common-Place.

Historic House-Hunting in New York City

“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).

Grange 1

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.

Grange

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…

Church

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.

Next, we ventured even farther uptown (204th St. , to be exact) to the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum.

Dyckman

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.

IMG_6381

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).

IMG_6363

And an amazing general store.

IMG_6364

Need a curtain?

IMG_6388

Some “fine art”?

IMG_6387

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.

IMG_6410

But again, visiting led us to another heretofor unknown treasure: Sylvan Terrace.

IMG_6392

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.