For many years, MCHS held a yearly used booksale; our booksorting volunteers found all kinds of interesting things between the pages of donated books, from greeting cards to photographs to money.  I’ve been a little disappointed in the ‘finds’ from the books in our permanent museum collections, though I’ll note that the 1909 Reference Bible from Miss Claggett’s trunk contains a 1973 Safeway receipt, and there are a few homework assignments stuck inside various textbooks (which I’ll save for a future post).  I’ve had better luck – because, yes, finding something inside another artifact is totally Curator’s Luck – with our textile collections.

T2407bHere, for example, is a handkerchief found tucked away in the pocket of a late 19th century cotton print dress.  It was discovered during an inventory by one of our interns; she was appropriately excited.  (I mean that sincerely.)  The dress was donated by a Poolesville family who wished to remain anonymous; as such, I won’t speculate too much on the name behind the embroidered “W.”

T1570On the other hand, this embroidered handkerchief – forgotten in the front pocket of a pair of tuxedo trousers – is quite helpful. The R stands for Riggs, as in George, husband of the donor Eugenie LeMerle Riggs.  Mrs. Riggs gave us several tuxedos and formal suits, but with the exception of her father’s Prince Albert coat (“Daddy’s morning suit”), she didn’t specify the original owners.  Thanks to the handkerchief, we can assign the 1950s-60s “Formals by Haricon” tuxedo to George H. Riggs, Jr. (1904-1983) of Ashton.

T2340Purses and handbags are another frequent spot for forgotten personal objects. This 1920s leather bag was donated by Barbara Mullinix Grigg, who wasn’t sure if it had belonged to her grandmother Clara May Benson Mullinix (1871-1964) or aunt Connie Mullinix (1905-1993), both of Damascus.  Inside the bag are a small leather change purse, empty, and three calling cards: Miss Constance C. Mullinix, J. Collins English, and Lillian E. Whitehead.

T2340 calling cardsLillian Estelle Whitehead (b. 1907) of Wicomico County, Md. was one of Connie Mullinix’s classmates at the Maryland State Normal School (now Towson University); Connie graduated in 1924, and Lillian in 1923.  Mr. English is not as positively identified, but he may be James Collins English (b. 1907) who lived in Gaithersburg in the 1920s.  Since Miss Whitehead and Mr. English were likely Miss Mullinix’s friends, I’d hazard a guess that this well-used purse belonged to the daughter, not the mother.

T2344-45Ruth Ramsdell Stout (1918-2013) donated these two beaded handbags, from her young adulthood in Gaithersburg; both bags still contained her calling cards: Miss Ruth Marie Ramsdell.  True, in this case we didn’t need the cards to identify the original owner, but it was still great to discover them tucked inside.  These left-behind cards help us make a tangible connection between the 1930s (in this case) and today.  Calling cards may be scarce in 2013, but think how many of us have business cards – our own or our friends’ – stashed away in unused handbags and briefcases?

Hat tip to the Forgotten Bookmarks blog for inspiring today’s post.


March is, among other things, National Craft Month.  We’ve featured some high-end crafting on the blog, like the hair wreath, the fretwork Lord’s Prayer, and the engineer-built cardboard house model . . . but today, let’s look at something a little simpler: a train caboose made of wood, wire, spools, paint, and a milk carton.


Our little caboose was donated in 1998 by Eugenie Riggs, who told us it was made by one of her sons as a Boy Scout project.  George and Eugenie Riggs had four sons, born between 1934 and 1946; the family moved from D.C. to Chevy Chase in 1936, and then to Ashton’s historic “Cherry Grove” in 1945.  Waxed cardboard milk cartons were invented in the early 20th century, but didn’t become popular until the 1950s or so; thus I think the caboose was probably made in Ashton.  (Any Ashton-area Scouts from the 1950s out there want to chime in?)


The underlying structure here is a Lucerne Vitamin D Milk carton.  The wheels are made of wooden spools, cut in two and connected with dowels, then attached to the carton with heavy wire.  Extraneous bits, like the top of the compartment and the little ladders on the ends, are made of cardboard, including some decorative corrugation on the roof.  The whole thing is painted red and black, and marked “B-O” for the B&O Railroad, one of the oldest railroads in the country (and a presence in Montgomery County since 1873).


Pretty cute, right?  Unfortunately, we did not get any other information from Mrs. Riggs about this piece; while she was definitely a ‘saver,’ and gave us a very large donation of toys and playthings, this is the only craft-type artifact that was included.  It seems likely that it meant something special, to her and/or to its maker.  I’ve always liked this little caboose because it shows that milk-carton kids crafts – which abound on the internet (there are entire websites devoted to what you can make from a milk carton!) – have been around as long as the cartons themselves.

In honor of Boxing Day (which isn’t really about packaging, but that’s okay) here is a tiny box! . . . and its contents.

matchbox excavator

In 1953 the Lesney Products toy company of England introduced a collection of vehicles designed to fit into replica matchboxes. They called them, honestly enough, the Matchbox series.  Our excavator here is a model 24B, first sold in 1959.  Indeed, the box is only three inches long – nice and tidy.  (The pencil marks are our numbers, FYI.) The diecast metal toy inside has a hinged excavator and rolling wheels, and is marked “Weatherill Hydraulic” – Weatherill was a British manufacturer of life-size hydraulic equipment.

Our little excavator is part of a large donation of toy vehicles (of various sizes, not just Matchboxes) donated to MCHS by Eugenie Riggs of Ashton; they belonged to her youngest son, born in 1946.


Today we have one of my favorite pieces in the museum: a Grecian sofa or couch, circa 1810-1825, which can be seen (though not sat upon) in the parlor of the Beall-Dawson House. The sofa was purchased by the donor, Eugenie LeMerle Riggs, in the late 1940s for use in her home “Cherry Grove,” an historic house in Ashton.  She donated the sofa to the Historical Society in 1985.

This piece elicits many comments and questions from our visitors, mostly along the lines of “What do you call that?” or, even more to the point, “How are you supposed to sit on that?” We’ve called it a variety of things over the years, from settee to sofa to recamier, but I try to stick with the definitions provided by Edgar Miller in his 1937 American Antique Furniture: A Book for Amateurs. He describes this form as a Directoire style Grecian sofa (more on this in a moment).

The sofa is mahogany, with a velvet upholstered cushion, gold painted lines, and brass ornamentation. The crosspiece on the larger arm is in the shape of two lyres, and there are brass mythical creatures (fish-tailed winged lions) on the seat rail, above the saber-shaped legs. These elements are all nods to – or approximations of – classical Greek forms, part of the classic revival style that was popular in Europe and America in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The maker of this particular piece is unknown; the only clue to its pre-Cherry Grove history is the word “ARCOS.” pasted on the underside of the shorter arm. So far, Arcos – Maker? Owner? Location? – is proving elusive.

Back to Mr. Miller, and the name of our piece. First: sofa or couch? Contemporary sources, such as furniture-maker catalogs and fashion magazines, often used those terms interchangeably. Some modern museum catalogs refer to this form as a couch, leaving sofa for more upholstered looks. Miller concedes that “in applying the word ‘sofa’ to some of these ‘Grecian’ pieces, we are departing from the definition of ‘sofa’ given [previously], as some of these ‘sofas’ have no upholstery on the back and others have only one arm.” Since I’m following Miller, I’ve decreed this a sofa.

Next, what makes it Grecian? According to Miller, “The principal feature in the Grecian sofas is that the back does not extend over the entire rear of the sofa, but leaves a portion of the seat without a back, indicating that the sofa was intended to be used for reclining, not as a sitting place. Another feature is that the two arms are of different sizes, the arm at the foot being smaller than the one at the head.” This design is based on forms seen in ancient Greek art, again part of the classical revival. The “Directoire style” I mentioned is defined by the “fine continuous curve” (Miller again) that can be followed from arm to arm across the front, and refers to the Directoire period in late 18th century France.

And finally, how do you sit on it? The best-known image of such furniture in use is the “Portrait of Madame Recamier” by Jacques Louis David, 1800. (This portrait is responsible for the use of “Recamier” as a name for sofas such as ours, although sticklers point out that the lady’s painted seat is shorter and backless, and has symmetrical arms.) You could (if we let you, which we won’t) perch delicately on the upholstered seat, perhaps flirting with a gentleman over your fan; or you could, like Madame Recamier, recline gracefully (though not for long periods of time, at least not comfortably), with your skirts arranged for maximum admiration. This isn’t a sofa meant for flopping onto after a hard day at the office; it’s about display, not relaxation.

This circa 1970 image shows the front hall of Cherry Grove (built 1773), with our sofa at left.

It’s hard for me to believe, but A Fine Collection is one year old. To celebrate your curator thinking “Oh, no, it’s Wednesday!” for 52 weeks in a row, this particular Wednesday’s post contains a few fun little artifacts plus the question: What do YOU want to see on this blog? Would you like more toys, more tools, more textiles? (Or more of something that doesn’t start with T?) Do you want to know if we have [insert name of your favorite objects here] in our collections? I’ll make a note of your comments and requests, and do what I can to fulfill them over A Fine Collection’s second year of artifact goodness. And don’t worry, we’ll be back to the regular, in-depth postings next week – probably something from the Beall-Dawson House museum, in honor of the new exhibit that opens this Saturday.

Pluto the dog, in the form of a Fisher-Price Pop Up Kritter. “Pop Up Pluto,” the best selling Pop Up Kritter toy, was introduced in 1936 and discontinued in 1949. He’s made of wood and string, and is in pretty good shape although his ears are gone. He belonged to the Riggs boys of Ashton; donated by their mother, Eugenie LeMerle Riggs.

A wreath of felted wool flowers, held together with wool-wrapped wires. The ‘stamens’ are made of metal springs, with bits of wool wrapped around the ends. I think this was probably used as decoration, around a table centerpiece perhaps. The donor, Patricia Nicholson, told us that it dates to the 1880s and came from a Montgomery County owner, but sadly was unable to provide more specifics.

I’ll let Dr. Adams, our curator in the 1950s, describe this one: “Windshield wiper, a type used in early automobile days. Hand operated by reaching through tilted windshield. The windshield wiper, which helps give drivers a clear view in inclement weather, was first introduced in 1910. The wiping element was a carbon-based polymer squeegee, which would generally wear out within a year and need to be replaced.” (Ours has suffered that fate; any carbon-based polymer is now gone.) The blade/wiper part is only five and a half inches long. Donated by Mary Farquhar Green; used at Falling Green in Olney in the early 20th century.