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.

I Left My Soul in Antwerp

As Tyler and I made our way inside Museum Plantin-Moretus in Antwerp, Belgium, this past June, we knew that its stature as a UNESCO World Heritage site meant we would, at the very least, feel like we had an afternoon well-spent.

Museum Plantin-Morestus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015
Museum Plantin-Morestus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015

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.

Type-making Supplies at Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015
Type-making Supplies at Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015

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).

A Snapshot of the Library at Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015
A Snapshot of the Library at Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015

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 Printing Presses at Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015
The Printing Presses at Museum Plantin-Moretus, Antwerp, Belgium, June 2015

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.

Further Reading

If you want to take a circa 1900 virtual tour of Museum Plantin-Moretus, check out this visitor guide on the Internet Archive.

And of course, nothing can compare to visiting the site in person. I recommend it (and Belgium more generally) very highly. Learn more here the Museum Plantin-Moretus website.

I’ve written about workshop period rooms in the past. Check out my blog post about cleaning, inventorying, and cataloguing a duck decoy shop period room at the Upper Bay Museum in North East, Maryland.

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.

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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).

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And an amazing general store.

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Need a curtain?

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Some “fine art”?

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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.

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

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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.

Nearby History

There’s nothing like a few days of spectacular weather to encourage two Ph.D. students to get out of the house. Last Saturday, my partner Tyler and I ventured to Havre de Grace, Maryland, to investigate the town and its museums. We found a great used book store just a few steps away from the town’s oldest extant building.

Rogers House, 1788, Havre de Grace, MD
The Rogers House, built around 1788, survived the British burning of the town in 1813

We also learned that this circa 1900 Shad Shack’s preservation depends on the public’s beneficence.

Circa 1900 Shad Shack, Havre de Grave Maritime Museum
Circa 1900 Shad Shack, oldest known surviving example from the Upper Chesapeake Bay

Its interior is intact, too. As I have written elsewhere, I am entranced by the interpretive value workspace “period rooms” hold for us.

Shad Shack Interior

On the way back to Newark, we spontaneously followed a sign for “historic” Elk Landing. Little else along busy route 40 indicated its presence just a stone’s throw down the road save this liquor store featuring a Revolutionary War soldier graphic.

Elk Landing Liquor Store from Route 40 going West
Elk Landing Liquor Store from Route 40 going West – Always nice to see local businesses giving a nod to history

After we turned at the intersection and drove past a few homes and a prison, we encountered Elk Landing.

Historic Elk Landing
Historic Elk Landing

Elk Landing’s national historical significance lies in that General Howe’s troops supposedly navigated up to this site from farther the Chesapeake Bay during the Revolutionary War. From there, the British went on to the Philadelphia Campaign through northeastern Maryland, northern Delaware, and southeastern Pennsylvania. This movement culminated in the British defeat of the Americans in the battle of the Brandywine.

Today, in addition to the landscape itself, a circa 1800 home and a circa 1780 stone building on the Elk River constitute “Historic” Elk Landing.Hollingsworth House

The town of Elkton owns the site, and the group that cares for the property hosts occasional gatherings at the larger of the two buildings. The stone building, though not in use, has been thoughtfully boarded up. Perhaps the current keepers of the Kux Alrich House could get some inspiration from this type of preservation.

Eighteenth-Century Stone House at Elk Landing

We found a few signs indicating the yet-to-be-fulfilled intention to develop a “living history museum,” complete with a blacksmith shop and a cooperage.

Will a donor step forward to fund the cooperage?
Will a donor step forward to fund the cooperage?

At first, I thought this was an unfortunate failure. But I realized that the group smartly decided not to go ahead with each of these projects until they had funding for them. For now, the buildings and the landscape are preserved, well-kept, and accessible to history nerds like us (and a giant turkey vulture.)

This visit to Elk Landing capped off the end of an enjoyable day.  By the following afternoon, I was eager to visit the site where Howe’s troops first landed in Maryland, before they marched up to Elk Landing.

So as the afternoon started to wane, Tyler and I went off to find Elk Ferry, known as Oldfield’s Point in the 1770s.

Oldfield's Point, Maryland

Turns out our friends at Google have also labeled the point on its map, but, frustratingly, someone had marked the road to the point as private. Soldiering on, we cruised by some homes along the shore just north and east of Oldfield’s Point, and we could, in fact, see water from the car. Still unsatisfied, we Googled some more and came across a historical marker that commemorates the overlook of Howe’s landing.

Overlook General Howe Landing Map
Overlook of General Howe’s Landing, marked on a map

At first, I was bummed that we couldn’t get to Oldfield’s Point. I had wanted to be where Howe and his troops at landed. But we deemed the overlook

Overlook of General Howe's Landing
Overlook of General Howe’s Landing

…which was in front of a church outdoor amphitheater that also overlooked the Bay was quite charming in and of itself. And if we had been able to drive down Oldfield Point Circle, we might not have bothered to find the overlook. According to Battle of Cooch’s Bridge (1940), “the people were numerous and well-dressed” when they watched Howe and his men make their way onto the shore from this spot. I find it fascinating that, historically, civilians turned out to take in military maneuvers and battles. We generally avoid doing that today, if only because we would be in comparatively more danger given the increased power and precision of modern weaponry.

Hart's United Methodist Church Amphitheater, overlooking where Howe landed  in 1777 at Oldfield's Point
Hart’s United Methodist Church Amphitheater, overlooking where Howe landed in 1777 at Oldfield’s Point

We had assumed we would have to drive to the end of Elk Neck just to the west to get to or see the landing site. Thanks to the overlook, that wasn’t the case. Even though we made it there and spied Oldfield’s Point, we decided to venture to the end of the peninsula, anyway, to see what the State Park there had to offer. After making a short trek down a path along the water, in the shadow of an early nineteneth-century lighthouse, we took in a magnificent view of the Chesapeake Bay.

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We thought day two’s hunt would provide us with an  hour-long distraction. Instead, we found several “new to us” historic sites nearby that, at first, eluded our abilities to make good use of our reference books and maps. If Google or other powers that be had marked these local historical sites on Google Maps (as we initially wished they had), we would have spent far too few hours exploring our nearby history.