museum spotlight


Meet the newest addition to the Beall-Dawson House, and your curator’s new favorite artifact: the Walker family’s melodeon.

melodeon

This is a four-octave, lyre-leg rosewood melodeon, almost certainly made by Mason & Hamlin in the late 1850s. When upright, it measures 30” tall, 31” wide, and 17” deep. This style includes a single lamp stand (the red velvet circle at right), an engraved brass latch to hold the lid open at an angle (it’s rather loose now; the lid should be standing taller), and other decorative yet functional features, though it lacks the carved music stand that other manufacturers employed. It appears to have all original parts, and it’s almost complete, but unfortunately the missing bits – a board inside, and a broken-off foot – mean it neither plays nor stands on its own. Happily, a convenient wall helps with the latter issue, and it doesn’t need to be playable to be a lovely addition to our Parlor.

top view

The manufacturer’s label has been removed from the bellows, but it is an extremely close match – using both the catalog image and known examples in modern collections – to Melodeon No. 9, made by Mason & Hamlin in the mid 19th century. Ours is marked 605 on the case and 629 on the works, which would place it in the late 1850s in the maker’s number sequence, as noted here.

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From the 1863 Mason & Hamlin catalog. Our example matches, in octaves and size, “No. 9 Four Octave, Portable,” for $60.

A melodeon – also known as a portable or collapsible organ – is a small reed organ, an American invention that uses vacuum or suction of air over reeds to create sound . (Note that it’s the opposite, then, of the English harmonium, which uses air pressure over the reeds.) The vacuum bellows mechanism was invented in the 1830s, patented in 1846, and used by a number of organ manufacturers in the mid to late 19th century.  Melodeons have what one collector describes as “a bright reedy tone with little voicing” – see the bottom of this post for links to examples.  To this non-musician, they sound like what they are: tiny organs.

melodeon, insides

Larger reed organs, known as parlor organs, were common in middle- to upper-class U.S. homes in the Victorian era. In contrast, melodeons were small and compact, lacking the decorative tops so often found on parlor organs; as such, they were both easier to place, and cheaper to buy. Some were made in “piano style,” with fixed legs, and others were designed to be portable (relatively speaking), with a detachable stretcher and folding legs – perfect for teachers, itinerant musicians, families moving out west, or anyone who wanted organ music on the go. Here’s ours in traveling mode, with the legs folded underneath on iron hinges:

melodeon, folded

Melodeons were popular in the 1840s-60s. Two mildly famous examples: John Brown gave one to his daughter in 1857; the Alcott family had one at Orchard House. By the 1870s, manufacturers were turning their focus to parlor organs and pianos, and sales of new melodeons dropped – but that doesn’t mean the old ones weren’t still played, even into the 20th century. (Check out this website’s photo series for some lyre-leg examples in use over the decades, as well as lots of parlor organs in situ.)

Our instrument is an example of just that: use long after its manufacture. It was donated earlier this year by Joe Snyder, who knew that his grandmother, Fidelia “Della” Seward Walker Snyder (1871-1960) of Browningsville, owned and played the melodeon around the turn of the last century. The local newspaper noted several occasions when Miss Della Walker plied her talents; for example, she sang the opening hymn at Edward Watkins’ 1900 funeral, and at the 1904 wedding of Emory Purdum and Alma Molesworth, she “accompan[ied] with a popular march suitable to a home wedding.”

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The story goes, Miss Walker brought her melodeon with her to churches and events around the area – but even folded up and ready to go, the thing weighs at least 50 pounds. Thus, she had a driver, a young man from the neighborhood named Preston Snyder (1885-1967), who conveyed musician and instrument when necessary . . . and in November 1908, Della and Preston were married. After a few years in D.C., they moved to a farm in Travilah; the melodeon went with them, eventually inherited by their daughter Carol.

As if that fantastic little story weren’t enough, there’s more! Della’s father was George Washington Wesley Walker (1837-1915) of Browningsville, a well-regarded music teacher, organist, and choir director. Professor Walker was a self-taught musician, who later studied formally with William Mason*. He played the organ at Bethesda Methodist Church [which is in Browningsville, not Bethesda] for over fifty years, and his home Mendelsohn Terrace was the center of all things musical in the Browningsville/Damascus area.  Late in his life, Professor Walker summarized his career as having “taught the people to sing in 49 different churches and 69 halls during fifty years of his life.” Several of Walker’s children carried on the tradition; in addition to Della’s performances, we know that Alice Walker gave piano lessons [edited to add: She was also head of the music department at the Shenandoah Normal School], and in 1884 William Walker started the Browningsville Cornet Band, the longest-running band in Montgomery County.  (For some Walker photos (including Prof. Walker, though not Della herself), visit this family website about Della’s nephew, Wesley Day.)

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One thing that intrigued me as I researched the melodeon’s history was the fact that, as it was made in the late 1850s, it was so much older than Della Walker herself. A few sources indicate that in the early 20th century, Professor Walker had a sideline in piano and organ sales; perhaps he purchased a used instrument for his daughter? Then I found this tidbit: In a 1938 article, written by Walker’s granddaughter Mary Browning Scanlon, the author noted that “Young George decided that the hymn singing [at Bethesda Methodist] could be improved upon, so he bought a melodeon and began studying for himself. In 1858, at the age of 21, he organized his own singing class.” Aha! The timing fits! Now, it’s entirely possible that by the time Della was a young woman her home was filled with stray keyboards, and she chose one from the family stash that had the nicest sound or was the easiest to carry . . . but it would be pretty great if her little melodeon was also her father’s first major instrument.

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As noted above, Della’s melodeon is not currently playable. But thanks to the internet you are not left hanging, wondering what it sounded like. Here’s a Mason & Hamlin melodeon in use, and as a bonus here’s one by Waters, another melodeon manufacturer.  (The first-linked gentleman has lots of vintage instrument videos; you can while away many an hour if you’re so inclined.)   The piano restorers of the world have you covered if you want more mechanical information – enjoy a video tour of a restored Mason & Hamlin, or a video explanation of organ mechanics (look for “Play Video” under the heading “Organs and Melodeons”).

 

* William Mason, son of famous hymn writer Lowell Mason, taught music at the Normal School in Florida, NY, which Prof. Walker attended in 1870.  Lowell Mason’s work was important to Walker, who kept a photo of him on display at Mendelsohn Terrace, along with one of the 1870 Normal School class. Perhaps coincidentally, our melodeon’s maker, Mason & Hamlin, was founded by Henry Mason – another of Lowell Mason’s sons.

Although most of the Beall-Dawson House is furnished with period-appropriate antiques – with a focus on items from Montgomery County – the museum is not filled with original-to-the-House furnishings. However, thanks to Dawson descendants, MCHS does have a number of family pieces on display throughout the House. Some are more easily overlooked than others, so let’s take a look today at one of the smaller artifacts that you may not have noticed: A silver plate cake basket, which can often be found in the Parlor.

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This pedestal-footed basket dates from the last quarter of the 19th century, probably 1870s-90s. It features a scalloped beaded edge; a flange pierced in a formal geometric design accented with leaves, which curves downward into a plain center well; and a bail handle with stylized design, centered with a plain oval cabochon. The bowl is a foot across, and with the handle raised the basket is nearly a foot tall.

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Gs0003 detail

Because there is no maker’s mark, it is difficult to pin down a more specific date. The round bowl and pedestal foot are typical of the 1870s-80s, but only in the most general sense; for example, the 1896 Marshall Field & Co. catalog included eighteen different cake basket options of different sizes, shapes, and designs, including pieces similar to ours. There’s nothing about our basket that shouts out a particular year or fashion. That’s not to say that this is a generic or boring piece, however. The ornate design, including both engraving and piercing, would likely put this at the higher end of the price scale. A triple-plate silver basket, without piercing, in the 1886 Bloomingdale’s catalog was available for $3.25 ($83 in 2013 dollars); the 1896 Marshall Field options ranged from $4.50 ($124 in 2013) to a “silver, engraved, gold-lined” option for $14.40 ($397 in 2013).

Three of the cake basket options from the 1896 Marshall Field & Co. catalog, showing the variety of styles. (The bottom basket's description is cut off; it's "satin [finish], bright-cut, 10 1/2 inches high," selling for $5.35.)

Three of the cake basket options from the 1896 Marshall Field & Co. catalog, showing the variety of styles. (The bottom basket’s description is cut off; it’s “satin [finish], bright-cut, height 10 1/2 inches,” selling for $5.35.)

Silver cake baskets were a common sight in upper-class U.S. and European households in the 18th and early 19th centuries. (Here’s an example from 1788, at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, made by Hester Bateman of London.) With the introduction of electroplating in the mid 19th century, cheaper silver plate and mass-produced examples came onto the market, so middle-class families could think of adding a stylish, elegant cake basket to the sideboard or tea table.

The image that comes to mind today might be of a round birthday-type cake squeezed under the handle and then perched precariously on the bowl, but these dishes were used for the display and serving of small tea cakes, which are certainly a better fit for the form.  I’ve not so far found any historic images of one in use, but they’re mentioned in entertainment guides and cookbooks of the 19th century, such as the following two table/menu guides (from this handy source, compiling descriptions of appropriate ways to hold an afternoon tea):

A pitcher of ice-water, with small tumblers surrounding it, may occupy one corner, and a basket or plate of cake the other.

“Arrangement of Table, and Bills of Fare, for Tea,” from The American System of Cookery, Mrs. T.J. Crowen (1847)

Variation [on the Afternoon Tea] on a more elaborate scale is the weekly ‘At Home,’ which has grown in popularity with many hostesses . . . . The menu may include both tea and coffee or tea and chocolate. There may be one or two kinds of dainty sandwiches and baskets or plates of fancy cakes . . . . A dish of fine bonbons may also be passed.

Consolidated Library of Modern Cooking and Household Recipes, Christine Terhune Herrick, editor-in-chief (1905)

Although many sources suggest that cake baskets fell out of fashion in the early 20th century, the 1927 Sears catalog offered a few examples (including a $4.00 ($53 in 2013) gold-plated pedestal dish, headed “Gifts that add to the table’s charm”), and one still might bring out Grandma’s antique upon occasion:

 An old-fashioned cake basket lends a certain stately dignity to the tea table and a finely etched or cut glass plate is lovely for sandwiches.

Alice Foote MacDougall’s Cook Book, Alice Foote MacDougall (1935)

 

The basket was donated in 1985 by Amelia Somervell Farmer (Mrs. William T.) Nicholson, daughter of Priscilla Beall Dawson Farmer (1879-1947). Priscilla was the daughter of John and Amelia Somervell Dawson, who lived and raised their family in the Beall-Dawson House; Priscilla lived here until her 1914 marriage, and – since she and her husband lived in Redland, a few miles away – she stayed closely involved with the family home. When she donated the basket to the Historical Society, Mrs. Nicholson indicated that it was originally from the Beall-Dawson House; our then-Director noted “how delighted we were to have the silver compote come back to the House . . . . Each piece that has ‘lived’ here before has special meaning.”

When Margaret Dawson (Priscilla’s sister, who lived in the House all her life) died in 1937, her belongings were first inventoried, and then sold. Some of the Beall and Dawson family pieces in our collections can be found on one list or the other – for example, John Dawson’s desk was purchased at the 1937 estate sale by Mrs. Nicholson, and donated to us many years later – but this cake basket is not easily identified. Possibly Priscilla had already taken ownership of the basket before her sister’s death, though the particular circumstances aren’t known; Mrs. Nicholson told us only that it was from the House.  Was it one of many similar pieces, part of a set, or a particular favorite?  If it’s a tad earlier than I think, perhaps it was a wedding gift for Amelia and John (married 1871), passed on to their daughter; if it’s rather later than the estimated date, it might have been a wedding present for Priscilla herself (1914).  Amelia Dawson died relatively young, in 1896, and maybe her children were given a chance to choose a favorite piece, a reminder of their mother, for their own.  At this point, we really don’t know.

 

A side note on condition: Yes, our friend here is not looking shiny and new. In part this is because some of the silver plating is wearing thin, exposing the plainer metal underneath. Our previous silver curator believed that there was a deliberate gold tint to the leaves on the piercing, which now simply looks rather discolored. The basket has been poorly polished in the past (including by MCHS); in the photo below, what at first glance looks like some kind of white inlay is in fact layers of polish residue that was left behind. We have not polished this piece in some time, because over-polishing will help to remove the plating that’s left, and because cleaning, polishing, and coating museum silver requires a very particular regimen which, as the National Park Service’s Conserve O Gram notes, “should not be undertaken lightly.” For now we’ll leave it be, rather than doing a quick – but, in the end, damaging – fix with commercial polish.

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Today we have a mahogany tea table from the late 18th century. That covers the material and its function; to expand the description, it is a tripod tilt-top birdcage table, in the Chippendale style, with a single-board top, wrythen-turned vase-shaped stem, cabriole legs, acanthus-leaf knees, and ball-and-claw feet. (It is not, however, a piecrust or dishtop table, as the tabletop has a plain edge.) It measures 27” tall, with a 35” diameter top; though it has no maker’s mark or other identifying features, it was likely American-made. If you’ve toured the Beall-Dawson House at any time since 1970, you’ve seen our table in the Parlor.

The Beall-Dawson parlor or drawing room, 1970; the tea table is at right, between the wing chairs.

The Beall-Dawson parlor or drawing room, 1970; the tea table is at right, between the wing chairs.

This particular form of table was developed in the late 18th century, part of a general move in the western world toward specialty-function furniture to suit leisure activities such as taking tea. Earlier examples are in the Queen Anne style, with later pieces veering into Chippendale. (More examples, and a better explanation, of both styles can be found on the Metropolitan Museum’s website.) Higher-end examples, like ours, boast a tilting top that made it easier to shift furniture out of the way when you needed floor space (this is still a useful feature; you may have spotted our table in flipped-up position during events and holiday displays, for example); even fancier is the addition of a “birdcage” mechanism which, when the wedge is removed, allows the top to rotate.

F0223, tilted

 

F0223, tilted, reverse

A bit of backstory before going into the particulars of this table’s history: The Bealls and Dawsons, two families related by marriage, lived in the Beall-Dawson House from its construction circa 1815 until the late 1930s. After the family left, the House was rented out to various tenants until the Dawson heirs sold the House to the Davis family in 1946. Mrs. Davis sold the House to the City of Rockville in 1965, and the Historical Society moved in shortly thereafter.

Depending on which 1960s catalog information one reads, our tea table was either found by the Davises in the Beall-Dawson House basement, or found by MCHS on the second floor of the Davis-built garage. (Personally, I’m inclined to combine those stories: it seems likely that the Davises found it in the basement, then moved it to the garage storage where we found it in our turn.) Though both of those stories place the table in the House prior to our own tenure, it could easily have been acquired by one resident or another in the 20th century. On the other hand, there’s nothing to say it’s not an original Beall family piece, so we have long assumed/hoped that it was probably owned by Upton Beall and/or his wife Jane (who outlived him). It’s certainly old enough; in fact it predates the House, and could have come from a parental estate, or perhaps was bought used by Upton or his wife. (Buying things from your neighbors at estate sales was as much a part of Montgomery County culture in the early 19th century as it is today.)

So, with the caution that we don’t really know that this was Upton’s tea table, I’ll tell you that Upton Beall’s estate inventory, taken after his death in 1827, includes “1 [undescribed] tea table.” Nothing on later inventories is specifically called a “tea table,” but there are plenty of “tables” to choose from – or perhaps it had already been relegated to uninventoried storage as too old-fashioned or broken for use. Based on the amount of stuff on those inventories, neither the Bealls nor the Dawsons were the get-rid-of-excess-furniture type; the final inventory, in 1937, mentions (but does not list the contents of) a “storage room” of furniture. It seems perfectly plausible that an old table, in bad condition, could have been stashed away somewhere in the House and then forgotten.

f0223 - cracks

Look again at the photos included throughout this post, and you can see that the table top is not really a flat plane; the top is a noticeably different color than the base; and the underside of the table top is kind of a hot mess. Both versions of the old-catalog stories note that the table was in sad shape when it was discovered, with a “cracked and warped top,” and that we “had the top refinished, but left the base alone.” What I’ve not been able to pin down is what was actually done to the table, other than what can be seen now with the naked eye: The top was stripped of its original patina . . . I’ll pause here for gasps of dismay from televised-antique-appraisal aficionados, who know better . . . and, at the end of the process, thoroughly coated with a modern varnish.  (If the top of the table looked anything like the underside, which is a peculiar matte black, I can sympathize with the desire to make it shiny again.) The cracks were filled in with some kind of adhesive or putty which, as you can see from the photo directly above, is starting to fail after 40 years of valiant effort. The braces on the underside were removed and reattached in a different direction, and two additional braces were added, likely to help reverse the warping of the top; the shadows of the original brace location and orientation of the square block, plus the old screw holes, are visible.  The new braces and (what I hope is the) original brass latching mechanism were reattached with shiny new screws.  And, yes, all of this is possibly horrifying to a modern-day furniture conservator, but was likely top of the line in the late 1960s.

Brass latching mechanism, which prevents an accidental, mid-meal table flip.

Brass latching mechanism, which prevents an accidental, mid-meal table flip. Note also the new screws; diagonal line where the brace originally sat; and an old screw hole for the brace, at far right.

As for the base, it does look essentially untouched, if that’s any consolation. The feet, in particular, show chips in the old varnish and the wood itself, but that’s to be expected of a 200+ year old table. And though in everyday lighting the base appears quite dark – particularly in comparison to the (perhaps overly) shiny top – when viewed closer, the mahogany color is still there under the old varnishes and oils.

Don't kick the table legs, kids

Don’t kick the table legs, kids

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If you like this table, there are lots of others to be enjoyed, both online and in your friendly neighborhood museums.  A good tea table is practically a staple of the Georgian/Federal-era house museum (I can say that because we have one). Check out large art museums as well; a few tables are in the new(ish) furniture galleries at the National Gallery of Art, and here’s an online listing of tea tables at the Met.  Auction houses, antique galleries, and collectors also feature a variety of Queen Anne and Chippendale tea tables on their websites.  Happy viewing!

We have a number of 19th and 20th century dolls in the collections; a few, including Kathryn Brown’s bisque and composition baby doll and Billy Hazard’s much-loved composition and fabric “Earl,” have been featured here before.  Today we have a doll of similar vintage to those two, but of different construction: a wood-bodied, metal-jointed Schoenhut doll from the 1920s. R2001.20.09 waving hello

Albert Schoenhut of Pennsylvania patented his “All-Wood Doll” in 1911. The metal joints allowed these dolls to be easily posed in relatively realistic ways. As his patent description explains,

My invention relates to toy figures, manikins, jointed dolls, and the like, and the object of my invention is to provide a structure of this character with means serving to articulate the several members, such means being of a character as to insure the maximum degree of friction whereby the several limbs and portions of the same may be turned and held in various positions assumed by such turning operations without danger of disarrangement except at the desire of the person using the toy, doll, or jointed figure.  In addition, the means which I have provided for articulating the structure are so arranged as to insure movement of the several limbs substantially in accord with the movement of the several limbs of the human body.

In simpler terms, a child could have Dollie stand on one leg and she’d stay that way until it was time for a new pose. A 1921 advertisement in Scribner’s Magazine shows several energetically posed dolls, and touts these features of “the world’s only educational doll”:

Made entirely from wood.  Painted in enamel oil colors which can be cleaned with a damp rag. Fully jointed with the new patented steel spring hinge, with double spring tension and swivel connections. No rubber cord whatever. Full joints at wrists and ankles. A unique foot pedestal by means of which the doll stands by itself. Real mohair wigs – blonde or Tosca or carved hair handpainted. Eyes either fixed or movable. Either conventional or natural child faces.

Our particular doll is a 15” model, with a “natural child face” (also known as a “character” face) and a Tosca (reddish-colored) mohair wig. The maker’s mark is inscribed on her shoulder blades: “Schoenhut & Co., Pat Jan 17 ’11 USA and Foreign Countries.”  Like most survivors of childhood play she’s missing some original features, including her union suit and foot pedestal, but she’s otherwise in pretty good shape.  She’s dressed in a cute purple floral swatch (the fabric is not actually sewn into a dress), topped with a cape and bonnet crocheted from white wool, and has some gold-colored bobby pins in her hair.

R2001.20.09 closeup

The doll – unfortunately, we did not get its name – belonged to Frances Brown Brosius, born in 1919 to Carroll and Isabelle Brown of Forest Glen.  In the early 1920s, the Browns moved to the Neelsville area (between Clarksburg and Germantown), where Mr. Brown managed several local farms. Frances attended Cedar Grove Elementary School through seventh grade, then went to Gaithersburg High School.  (She may be one of the students in the photo below, showing Cedar Grove students in 1927; anyone recognize her?)

MCHS Library collections, from Denise Wilson

Cedar Grove School, 1927. MCHS Library collections, from Denise Wilson

Mrs. Brosius lived in Silver Spring after her marriage, and in 2001 she donated a large collection of her family’s farm tools, household goods, toys, and other pieces (here’s her father’s fish) to the Historical Society.  This doll came with a trunk, some doll-sized furniture and accessories, and a few other pieces of clothing, saved from Mrs. Brosius’s childhood – and perhaps played with by her own children. The 1921 Schoenhut ad begins, “The child’s greatest tragedy is the breaking of the new doll or of the old favorite. . . . A Schoenhut doll will outlast [cheaper dolls] many times over.” Unlike many of the dolls in our collections, this young lady is still sturdy and unbroken – Mr. Schoenhut’s promise would seem to have held true.

To see a few other examples of Schoenhut dolls, here’s a bit from everyone’s favorite antiques show featuring four dolls from the 1910s. Right now you can also see our unnamed young lady in person, on display in the Beall-Dawson House children’s bedroom.

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S0022 topThis small, innocuous-looking brass box has a special surprise inside: twelve spring-loaded blades, released by the lever on the top. Street-fighting weapon? No, it’s a medical device used in bloodletting, called a scarificator. WARNING: if the word “bloodletting” has caused you to wince, recoil, or cross your arms defensively, you might want to stop reading now.

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The small, curved blades pop out of the slots. Surprise!

Before the discovery and acceptance of germ theory and other modern medical theories, illnesses were frequently blamed on an imbalance of the body’s “humors.” Bleeding (venesection), an ancient and very common practice, was believed to be a way to help restore that balance. Modern-day reflections on the technique of bloodletting might make it seem haphazard at best and fatal at worst, but in fact physicians put care and thought into how much blood to let, and there were a variety of tools used, more than just the trusty leech and handy lancet. (This short video created by the Rose Melnick Medical Museum details the 19th century methodology of bloodletting, including some of the other tools.) The scarificator, invented in the late 17th century, allowed the doctor to create a series of shallow cuts – the depth could be changed by altering the spring mechanism inside the device – and thus control the amount of blood released. Ours is not operable, but this site details the spring mechanism inside, and this video from the Canada Science and Technology Museum demonstrates the mechanism.

 The scarificator was a common tool for 18th and 19th century physicians, until venesection began to lose favor in the late 19th century.  (Here’s an article about venesection during the American Civil War.) Many examples, some quite attractively designed and engraved, can be found in museums and antique shops in the U.S. and Europe. Our particular piece is fairly plain, with only a simple “V” on one side – perhaps indicating the maker? – and in the standard cube-like form, executed in brass and measuring 1.75″ tall. Based on the style and material, it likely dates from the mid 19th century.

Dr. Edward E. Stonestreet, 1873. Courtesy Elizabeth Barrett Prettyman Guay.

Dr. Edward E. Stonestreet, 1873. Courtesy Elizabeth Barrett Prettyman Guay.

In this instance, it’s the scarificator’s provenance that is of interest rather than its design: it is one of only a few items in our collection used by Dr. Edward E. Stonestreet (1830-1903), a Rockville physician whose one-room office is now our Stonestreet Museum of 19th Century Medicine. Dr. Stonestreet graduated from the University of Maryland medical school in 1852, after several years apprenticeship with Dr. William B. Magruder of Brookeville, and he practiced in the Rockville area until his death (while on his way to a housecall) in 1903; he never retired. Though his office survived the test of time, most of Dr. Stonestreet’s medical tools did not.  A few pieces, including this one, were inherited by his grandson Dr. William A. Linthicum (another Rockville physician), who donated them to us after his grandfather’s namesake museum was created in the 1970s. The scarificator is often on exhibit in the Stonestreet Museum.

If you’d like to learn more, visit Dr. Stonestreet’s “office hours,” held on the second Sunday of each month at the museum. This month, February 9, 2014, interpretive docent Clarence Hickey will present a special program on Civil War medicine. 12-4 p.m., included with museum admission.

The concept of a high chair – a tall, small chair that makes it easier to feed, tend, and occasionally restrain a baby – has been around for a long time.  The Metropolitan Museum has a 17th century high chair in its collections, and the Museum of Fine Arts has an early 18th century example. Just like adult-sized furniture, children’s pieces follow fashions and trends: some are expensive and elaborate, others are throwbacks to an earlier era, and some are more about function than looks.  Here are two infant high chairs in our collections, used around the same time but of very different styles.

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On the left is a late 19th century wooden high chair, 37″ tall, owned by the Jacobs family of Browningsville.  It is handmade, and may have been built by Jonathan Jacobs (1845-1919) himself; he was a coach-maker, but an 1867 tax record identifies him as a cabinet-maker as well.  Jonathan and his wife, Mary Manzella Brandenburg Jacobs, had four sons (Willard, Norman, Wriley, and Merle) born between 1875 and 1890.  The chair descended through the family of the youngest son, Merle Jacobs, to Merle’s son Charles, who donated it to MCHS in 1996.

It’s a good old-fashioned Windsor style, often seen in 18th century high chairs, with nicely turned legs, rails, and stretchers, and a shaped seat.  There’s no tray, which is not unusual for early (that is, before the 1950s or so) high chairs, but there is a little footrest, and a small metal eye centered under the seat indicates that there may have been a strap or other restraint to keep any Baby Jacobses from pitching themselves out of the chair headfirst.

DSC07529Though in pretty good shape, it does show evidence of years of use; there are a few old stains on the seat, the finish on the seat and arms is worn down, and several of the peg joints have been repaired and glued.

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DSC07513The 37″ tall walnut high chair on the right (and in the detail shot, above) was used around the same time as the Jacobs family’s, but is an example of a popular commercially-made chair.  (If you do an internet image search for “Victorian high chair,” you’ll see what I mean.)  “Convertible” highchairs were made throughout the 19th and 20th centuries (examples here); some turned into chair-and-table combos, and others into rocking chairs or, like this one, wheeled walkers:

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Ta-da!

A number of manufacturers used this distinctive Eastlake-style chair-back design; ours, unfortunately, does not have a maker or store label.  However, family history tells us that it was used by Nourse family of Washington, DC and Darnestown.  (It was thought to have been used a generation earlier, by the Darbys of Seneca, but the design of the chair is too late for an 1850s date.)  Mary Alice Darby (1845-1942) of Seneca married druggist/physician Charles H. Nourse; the 1880 census shows the family in a well-to-do household on New York Avenue, DC, with their children Upton Darby, four years old, and Mary Helen, five months old.  They moved to Darnestown, near Mary Alice’s family, soon thereafter.

The highchair descended through the family of son Upton Darby Nourse to his daughter Rebecca Nourse Chinn and then to her daughter (the donor), Jane Chinn Sween.  Like the Jacobs’ chair, it shows evidence of hard use – the woven back and stamped-leather seat bottom (below) are both replacements – and was probably used for more than one generation.  The Nourse high chair can be seen, usually, in the dining room of the Beall-Dawson house (as a baby’s dining chair, not as a walker).

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And now a bonus, to thank my readers for being so patient with today’s at-the-end-of-the-day posting! We have no photos of the above chairs in use … in fact, though we have many pictures of infants and children sitting in baby carriages, on ponies, on the laps and shoulders of family members, and even in a wheelbarrow, we have very few high chair photos.  Happily, we do have this fantastic photo of infant James E. Mason (b. 1896) of Sugarland, posed for a photo in his chair.

Donated by Gwen Hebron Reese.

Donated by Gwen Hebron Reese.

The Beall-Dawson House is an historic house museum, but with a bit of a twist.  The House is furnished to tell the story of the many people – old and young, enslaved and free – who lived and worked there for over 150 years; but we are the County Historical Society, after all, and some of the artifacts on display tell a broader story.

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Take, for example, this fine couple, who can be seen in the Dining Room, above.  Major A. Price* and his wife Mary Ann Harding Price are not related to the House residents** in any appreciable way, but (unlike some of our furnishings) they are not merely period-appropriate decorations.  Mary Ann’s story helps us talk a little bit about Montgomery County in the early 19th century.

Major & Mary Ann

All photos on this post (other than the Dining Room view) by Tom Meeks.

Mary Ann Harding (1805-1825) was born in Montgomery County, Maryland, daughter of Elias and Ellen Harding. (Her parents were distant cousins; both were descended from John Harding, who died in Rockville in 1753.)  In 1810, they and several other branches of the Harding family moved to Logan County, Kentucky.  Mary Ann grew up in Russellville, and married a neighboring gentleman named Major A. Price in September 1823; she died two years later.  It’s thought she died in childbirth, or perhaps due to later complications; in the Hardin-Harding family cemetery in Kentucky, there’s a grave near Mary Ann’s stone inscribed “Mary Ann Price, stillborn dau. of Major & Mary A. Price, Aug. 27, 1824.”

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These two portraits were donated to the Montgomery County Historical Society in 1985 by Mary Hardin Bernard, Mary Ann’s great-great-niece.  (Mary Ann’s sister Margery Harding married a man named Thompson Hardin, hence the missing “g”.) The Hardin family was certain that the young woman was Mary Ann Harding Price; it is believed, though not really proven, that the gentleman was her husband.  Your man Major is something of a conundrum at present; he may or may not have: been born in Virginia in 1800, had three wives, first married Mary Ann’s step-sister . . . several afternoons spent playing “Let’s Find Major’s Wives!” only added to the confusing history, and if I launch into that now this post will devolve into a series of “but wait, then there’s this record. . .” statements, which isn’t really the point.  Suffice it to say that so far as we know, the dapper young man giving our Dining Room windows the side-eye is likely the Major A. Price noted as Mary Ann’s “consort” on her gravestone.  (Marriage records also confirm Major’s name.)

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Anyway, if these portraits were painted in Kentucky, why are they hanging in the Beall-Dawson House in Rockville, Maryland?  At the time of their donation, MCHS touted it as a matter of the portraits “coming home,” though whether that’s how the donor herself would have phrased it, I’m not sure.  We were very excited about this donation, as the portraits were unique (they’re still our earliest examples), in poor condition (thus offering us a chance to do some fundraising outreach, which was highly successful as you can tell from their current attractive state), and mysterious.  Who was Mary Ann?  Who’s the guy?  Why did they have their portraits painted – and by whom?

In the early decades of the 19th century, many Maryland farmers left the state to find a more prosperous life.  Both wheat and tobacco prices dropped significantly in the late 1810s, and over-farming had depleted our local farmland; to put it briefly, times were tough.  (For a more thorough discussion of this economic depression, and how we got out of it, check out Chapter 7 of MacMaster and Hiebert’s A Grateful Remembrance, 1976.) The Harding family’s decision to move west in 1810 predated the major wave of emigration in the 1820s.  Their reasons may have been related to economic hardship, to general restlessness, or even to the fact that Ellen Harding’s father was forced to leave the state (by his son, no less). A 1937 article by Mary Hardin Bernard says only that the various Harding families “traveled the wilderness road together, moving slowly westward, searching for the most beautiful and most fertile part of Kentucky in which to build their homes. . . bringing with them their personal belongings, their slaves, and their high ideals of Christian living.”  And yes, it’s important to remember that Elias Harding was a slave owner; the 1810 Montgomery County census tells us that Mr. Harding’s property included 12 enslaved people, who most likely also made the trip to Kentucky. The 1820 census for Logan County shows 15 enslaved people under Mr. Harding’s name.  (The censuses do not name the enslaved individuals.) The experience of these people is an entirely different story, one which Mary Ann’s portrait doesn’t quite tell.

Whatever the circumstances of their life in Maryland, the Harding family flourished in Kentucky. The portraits show Mary Ann and Major in fashionable, expensive attire and elaborately styled hair.  (Please note that the top level of Mary Ann’s hairdo is in fact a large, rectangular tortoiseshell comb; see below.)  Presuming the gentleman is Major, these portraits were likely painted to celebrate their marriage or engagement, around 1823 or 1824. Clearly, the Hardings and/or the Prices could afford a certain level of fashion, and wanted that status recorded in oils.

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It’s a comb, honest.

An aside: MCHS catalog records include the idea that the sitters’ outfits and hair styles were either imaginary or aspirational – that is, the painter gave them fashionable clothing they didn’t actually own – but that is up for debate.  Since our research in the 1980s, new theories about itinerant portraiture and regionalism have been developed; Mary Ann and Major will benefit from a new round of research.  And after all, who doesn’t dress their best to have their portrait taken, whether painted or photographic?   (Disclaimer: I am not an art historian.)

Soon after the portraits arrived, Historical Society staff and volunteers began searching for possible artists.  The paintings are unsigned, and the Hardin family had little information for us other than a tradition that they were painted by an itinerant painter who boarded with Elias Harding for a short time.  Based on several criteria – including dates, location, and artistic style – my predecessors at MCHS concluded that Alexander Bradford (1791-1827) was our man.  Please take that with a grain or two of salt, as it is a possible, but far from an absolute, attribution.  Again, I feel that our portraits would benefit from another close look; perhaps some day soon I can post a follow-up, with new information.

Continuing to emphasize that I am not an art historian, I need to spend a few sentences talking about how great these portraits are.  Though as art the paintings may lack depth, as likenesses they are very expressive.  Mary Ann is looking right at you, with perhaps a tinge of skepticism in her eyes (or maybe she’s just trying to balance her hairdo); Major’s attention seems to be drawn away, like he’s too cool to be bothered with the whole process.  . . . Which is kind of sad, for an engagement or wedding portrait pair; these paired portraits were meant to be hung side by side, as we have them, and he’s looking away from Mary Ann.  Was he a dreamy*** guy, or simply bored? Maybe that’s why Mary Ann looks just a little dubious.

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Back to less speculative history. Much as I love these portraits (after all, Mary Ann is the blog avatar), there’s a different piece of family memorabilia that better speaks to the consequences of the Harding family’s move, and the Montgomery County connections that were maintained and severed. In an 1820 letter to his mother Mary Harding Sprigg, who was still living in Montgomery County near Barnesville, Elias Harding wrote news of his children, including one Mrs. Sprigg had never met: Elias and his second wife Lucy “have a lovely little daughter Margaret Sheppard [Harding],” while “Mary Ann and Margery is [sic] women grown.”  Poignantly, Elias clearly does not expect to see his mother again.  Although he knows he’s lucky to have found “one of the best of women” for his second wife, and considers Kentucky to be “the land of plenty,” he goes on to lament, “to see you once more this side of eternity would be one of the greatest gratifications . . . I often think of you and wish you was [sic] with us.”  To us today, moving from Maryland to Kentucky might not seem like a big deal; two hundred years ago, it was a major separation, and not one that would be undertaken lightly.

Special thanks are due to photographer Tom Meeks, who so kindly took the fabulous photos of Mary Ann and Major. 

* Yes, his first name was Major.

** In one of those “Montgomery County was a very small place in its way” coincidences, Mary Ann’s father, Elias Harding, was the second cousin of Jane Robb Beall’s sister Catherine’s husband Henry Harding.  (Jane Robb Beall was the wife of Upton Beall, first owner of the Beall-Dawson House.) Got that?

*** I mean that as “daydreamer,” but take it the other way if ruffled cravats are your thing.

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