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.


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.

Gs0003 top view

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.




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

DSC09965 crop

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!

Today, MCHS is very strict about what we accept into the museum collections. Much as I love THINGS, we simply can’t (and shouldn’t) store and care for one or more of everything; instead, we look for pieces with strong county provenance . . . that is to say, a good local story. When we moved into the Beall-Dawson House in the mid 1960s, however, we were suddenly faced with a large and empty house. To furnish it, and help tell the stories of the people who lived there for over a century, we collected furniture and decorative arts for the look rather than the history. Though every furnished room contains artifacts with local provenance (and at least one piece with Beall or Dawson family connections), some of our furniture and decorative arts collection has no particular relation to Montgomery County.

For instance, we have several examples of functional art pottery from the early 20th century. These three pieces were collected by Grace M. Eager of Wisconsin and Colorado; they were inherited by her granddaughter, Marian Roscheck, and donated by Mrs. Roscheck in 1989. We use them from time to time in the Beall-Dawson House to help set the scene, when we need that scene to be “real people lived here in the early 20th century” – or when the museum needs a little spring-like uplift. If you, dear reader, could use a little spring right now yourself, please enjoy these charming floral ceramics.

Blue Drapery, Weller Gc60

The earliest of the three is this 6.75” tall jardinière, made by Weller Pottery of Zanesville, Ohio. The “Blue Drapery” pattern – a highly descriptive name, as you can see – was introduced in 1915. The bottom is stamped, simply, “Weller.” Weller Pottery was founded in 1872, and the company began designing and producing art pottery by the 1890s.


Newcomb College Gc62

From about the same time is this small (2” tall) bulb bowl, decorated with narcissus blooms, produced in 1917 by craftspeople at the Newcomb College Pottery in New Orleans, Louisiana. The various marks on the bottom tell us the school and the date (“IW77” means 1917, no. 77), as well as the potter, Joseph Meyers, and the decorator, Sadie Irvine. Both were well-known members of the pottery, which opened at H. Sophie Newcomb Memorial College for women in 1895.

Newcomb College mark Gc62


Roseville "Apple Blossom" Gc61

Finally, here is a bowl or small jardinière by the Roseville Pottery Co. of Zanesville, Ohio, in the “Apple Blossom” pattern introduced in 1949. The numerical marking on the bottom – 300-4″ – gives us the classification (300 = bowl) and size (4” tall). Roseville was one of the more prolific, and better-known, art potteries of the early-mid 20th century, but as you can tell from our other pieces here, it wasn’t the only company working in this style.

Roseville mark Gc61


For more information on each pottery, click on the Wikipedia links scattered throughout this post, or do a quick internet search by pottery name for some of the many, many collectors’ websites available. Or, of course, try your local library for published books. Pottery collectors love their stuff, and there’s a lot more info out there for you! We have several other examples of art pottery in our collections – including other Roseville patterns – but today’s theme was ‘blue with flowers,’ so ceramics fans will have to wait for a future post to see more.

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.


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.”

maryann cropped
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.)

major cropped

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.

mary anns hairdo

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.

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.

askacuratorIt’s time again for Ask a Curator day, MCHS Style, this year with the added bonus of Twitter!  Tweet us today @mchist (with the tag #askacurator) with your questions, and we’ll see how well my crash course in Twitterdom goes.  (If nothing else, I’m happy to answer questions on future blogs, too.)

In the meantime, here’s a more thorough answer to one of last year’s questions: Is Upton Beall, first owner of our Beall-Dawson House, related to author Upton Sinclair (full name Upton Beall Sinclair)?  Author Jim Johnston, in his 2012 book From Slave Ship to Harvard: Yarrow Mamout and the History of an African American Family, provides this info: our Upton had a nephew, also named Upton Beall, who was a pastor in Georgetown in the mid 19th century.  According to Johnston (pg. 245), “[Rev. Beall] went on to become so well known that the Sinclair family named their son for him.  This is how the writer Upton Beall Sinclair got his name.”

And of course, I can’t leave my blog readers without an artifact.  September is Library Card Sign-Up Month, so here from our collections is a Montgomery County Public Library card, used in Rockville and Gaithersburg in the 1990s.  It’s the first design featured in the array of recent cards on the MPCL Library Card Sign-Up Month page.  Personally, I’m still rocking the second design; what kind do you have, fellow county residents? (And if you don’t have one, now’s the time!)  Don’t forget, many of the research books in our own library here at MCHS are cataloged in the MCPL system (though it’s worth noting that you don’t need a library card to use our library).


Here’s a little escapism for us today, with a fanciful landscape for your enjoyment.

This medium-size (just over a foot wide) ceramic platter was made by Allertons Ltd., in Longton, Stoke-on-Trent, Staffordshire, England.  The pattern name is simply “Chinese,” as evidently the designer saved all of his or her imagination for the picture itself: a flower-bedecked landscape featuring curly-roofed pagodas, towers, bridges, robed figures, and even a little dragon perched on top of the main building.  (The transferred image is rather blurry – that’s the  fault of the actual piece, not my bad photography – so though I suspect the dragon is supposed to be an architectural feature, it could easily be a resident instead.)
Transferware printing on ceramic was developed in the late 18th century, as an economical alternative to hand-painting every piece.  By the mid 19th century, transferware patterns in a wide variety of styles were being produced, particularly by the many potteries in Staffordshire, England. Romantic and ‘exotic’ scenes, of varying degrees of accuracy, were very popular.  This pattern, showing what someone fondly believed to be a Chinese landscape, fits right into that tradition, and the Allertons pottery was founded in 1831 . . .  however, the mark on the platter’s reverse indicates that it was in fact made between 1929 and 1942.

Judging from the number of pieces available for sale today on auction sites,  Allertons’ “Chinese” pattern was a popular one in the early 20th century.  I’ve not found an example earlier than 1912 (the company added “Ltd.” to their name that year), so it would appear that this was a new design for the 20th century, not a reprint of an older pattern.  We often picture Art Deco and Modernism styles when we think of the 1920s and ‘30s, but historical nostalgia was also popular, and many designers looked backward, not forward.  Allertons’ romantic throwback “Chinese” design filled a consumer desire for new things that looked old.  In the late 1960s, this particular platter filled the same purpose again: an anonymous donor thought this piece would help us furnish our newly acquired Beall-Dawson House with appropriately antique-looking antiques.

Enjoy transferware?  Check out previous examples on the blog here and here, or visit our Pinterest board!

20130416114841_00003One of the early A Fine Collection posts concerned a small book that belonged to Margaret Beall (1817-1901), life-time resident of the Beall-Dawson House (now our museum).  In that post I noted how excited we (well, I and my intern) were to discover it, in a collection of uncataloged books, particularly as we have little enough of Margaret’s belongings.  And it’s happened again!  This time, our exciting discovery comes thanks to a donation from one of Margaret’s cousin’s descendants.

Harry A. Dawson (1874-1944), son of Margaret’s cousin Amelia Somervell Dawson, grew up in the Beall-Dawson House.  He married Mary “Polly” Hoff in 1901; eventually they settled into a house a few blocks away from Harry’s childhood home, where his father and sisters still lived, and the branches of the Dawson family remained close. Recently, Harry and Polly’s granddaughter (also named Polly) donated a variety of artifacts, including books; most belonged to Polly Hoff Dawson, but among them was a copy of Early Days of Washington (1899).  This was a nice surprise – it’s a rare-ish book (though there are ebook versions) – but even better was this note inside:

A little Birth Day token of love for dear Cousin Margaret J. Beall with the earnest hope that there may be in store for her many more happy Birth Days.  Her loving Cousin – Louis Mackall  May 30 1900

The author, Sally Somervell Mackall, was another of Margaret’s many cousins, and much of her book describes the extended Beall-Somervell-Mackall-etc. family’s posh social life in Georgetown in the early 19th century.  Early Days of Washington contains a few stories about Margaret’s father, Upton Beall, and is particularly notable for being the only place to see an image of Upton; a photograph of a painted miniature appears on page 65.  (The pastel portrait in our museum is not an original; it was copied from this image, in the 1980s.)  Though we have the book in our library and we’re familiar with its contents, I think there’s something rather special about having Margaret’s own volume.

bealls father and daughter
Unfortunately, Mr. Mackall’s wish for his cousin did not come true; Margaret died on April 18, 1901, a few weeks short of her 85th birthday.  But as far as we know, she was still active in 1900 despite her relative age – after all, the census that year described her not as “keeping house” or with “no occupation,” but as a “capitalist” – and I’d like to think that she enjoyed reading about her father and his cronies back in the day.  I do wish she’d made some editorial comments in the book, anything that might help us to confirm or deny Sally Mackall’s anecdotal stories… but you can’t have everything.

Tucked away in the back corner of the Beall-Dawson House dining room is a glass-fronted china cupboard, which we use today as a kind of “open storage” for some of our period-appropriate glass and ceramics.  Included in this collection are six syllabub glasses, all more or less resembling this one:


A cut-glass syllabub or jelly glass, 4.5″ tall, maker unknown (probably English or Irish).  It was donated by long-time MCHS volunteer Jane Cyphers, in memory of her mother Willie Ryan Rolfe.  Our glass curator assigned the date range 1770-1820, based on the manufacturing technique and the trumpet shape (earlier versions had handles and/or a spout).  It may be possible to narrow that down, but not for me; I particularly like this description of the form, from the Victoria & Albert Museum catalog: “Fundamentally they were just a cone on a small foot . . . produced from about 1700 to at least 1845.  They differed in details which are often noticeable only to specialist collectors.”


What is syllabub (other than an increasingly funny word to say/type)?  Syllabub, or sillabub, was a popular dessert drink from the 17th to the early 19th centuries, consisting of wine, claret or sack (sherry) topped with a frothy mixture of whipped cream, lemon juice, sack, and other spices, depending on the recipe.  According to Merriam-Webster, the word was first used in 1547.  By the late 18th century syllabub was typically served in these little flutes, sometimes stacked into pyramids or arranged on salvers just to make the presentation that much more fabulous.

Judging by this morning’s internet search, syllabub is having something of a foodie revival.  Food historian Ivan Day (whose website and blog include many syllabub meditations, images, and recipes) notes that many of the modern recipes are versions of the “everlasting syllabub,” essentially a kind of whipped cream, as opposed to a whipped syllabub, where the froth lies on top of your sweetened alcoholic beverage of choice.  The 1805 edition of Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy; Excelling any Thing of the Kind ever yet published (first published in 1747) includes recipes for “Whipt-Syllabubs,” “Everlasting Syllabubs,” and “Solid Syllabubs.” She instructs makers of the whipped variety “do not make these long before you use them,” whereas the everlasting “will keep above a week and it is better made the day before.”  Her whipped syllabubs require “a quart of thick cream, half a pint of sack, the juice of two Seville oranges or lemons . . . the peel of two lemons, [and] half a pound of double-refined sugar,” as well as “sweeten[ed] red-wine or sack” to “fill your glasses as full as you chuse.”

One of the keys to a good syllabub was (and probably still is) the froth.  Mrs. Glasse recommended a whisk for making the whipped, but “the best way to whip [everlasting] syllabub is to have a fine large chocolate mill, which you must keep on purpose, and a large deep bowl to mill them in.  It is both quicker done, and the froth stronger.”  Other options included an invented “engine,” rather like a bellows.  Mr. Day has images and descriptions of your implement choices here.

Though newly-invented ice cream eventually replaced syllabub as the favorite dessert, the frothy beverage did not quite vanish entirely.  The Practical Recipe Book, Compiled by Ladies of the Episcopal Missionary Society for the Benefit of Emmanuel Church, Norwich, N.Y. (1878) has a  “Whipped Syllabub” with eggs in the “Custards and Creams” chapter (along with three recipes for ice cream).  Montgomery County’s own Elizabeth E. Lea, author of the popular cookbook Domestic Cookery, Useful Receipts, and Hints to Young Housekeepers (first published in 1845), includes a non-alcoholic version of “Whips.”

The Practical Recipe Book, 1878

The Practical Recipe Book, 1878

Domestic Cookery, E.E. Lea, 1856 edition

Domestic Cookery, E.E. Lea, 1856 edition


Faux syllabub!

As for the dessert habits of our own Beall family, who moved into their fancy new Rockville house around 1815, we don’t know for certain.  Upton Beall’s estate inventory, taken shortly after his death in 1827, mentions only a half dozen silver dessert spoons and $20 worth of “China and glassware in cupboard.”  Upton came from a well-to-do family in sophisticated Georgetown, and it is believed he did some relatively high-class entertaining at his Rockville home; it seems likely that he would have glasses on hand to serve the still-trendy dessert.

Intrigued by our little glass and its awesomely-named contents? (I really wanted to simply title this post “Syllabub!”)  There are far more recipes, old and new, available online than I could link to here; try your own internet search to get started.  If the vessel itself is what you like, there are examples on view in the collections of the Victoria & Albert, the Met, the MFA, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Winterthur (and probably many others).

It’s October 31st, and A Fine Collection is spoiled for choice, topic-wise.  Halloween! Elections! Superstorm!  As you’ve guessed from today’s title, I decided to go with the weather theme.  But first: here’s a photo of election day in Barnesville, 1944, to remind you to vote on or before November 6.

On to hurricanes.  This photo in our collections was donated by Albert Bouic, and is thought to show damage to the Bouic house in downtown Rockville after “the 1896 storm.”  Thanks to weather fans, who have detailed the 1896 hurricane season on sites like Weather Underground and Wikipedia, we can guess that this refers to Hurricane Number 4 (the National Hurricane Center didn’t start assigning official names until 1953), which hit the DC area at the end of September.












It’s kind of a cute picture, with the boys perched in the toppled tree and probably enjoying the excitement.  The hurricane was no joke, however.  The Montgomery County Sentinel reported on the storm on October 2nd, under the headline “A Tremendous Hurricane Does Great Damage in the County”:

“The great storm, which visited this locality on Tuesday night last, was the most destructive in the memory of the oldest inhabitant, and did damage that will take thousands of dollars to repair.” 

Several people around the county were killed by falling trees; one gentleman suffered heart failure “brought on by the excitement of the storm;” and others suffered near misses, like the young son of Mary Cook of Lincoln Park who, after the family’s house was crushed by a tree, was “found in the woods in a state of hysterical fright.”

Property damage was considerable, and communications were cut thanks to fallen telephone and telegraph wires and streets “blockaded” with “debris of trees, tin roofs, telephone poles and wires.”  Roofs were blown off, barns and windmills were blown down, harvested crops were scattered and lost, and trees fell on houses and businesses.  “The waiting shed at the Baltimore & Ohio [Railroad] depot was lifted up bodily and deposited upside down in the adjoining field.”  The Sentinel offices themselves were “unroofed,” and I was somewhat startled to learn that “the residence of Miss Margaret Beall [i.e., our museum] was much damaged, leaving the brick walls in a rather unsafe condition.”  (So much for my belief that the House has weathered nearly 200 years without major damage.)

Several churches in the county were severely damaged, including two in Rockville: the “African M.E. Church [which] was fully wrecked” (probably refering to Jerusalem-Mt. Pleasant UMC, which lost its steeple in 1896), and Christ Episcopal Church, shown below shortly after the storm, in a photo from Charles Brewer.

Again from the Sentinel: “The spire of Christ Episcopal Church, which was subjected to the full force of the gale, was blown down, and the heavy brick base broke through the roof of the edifice.  The stained glass window in front was shattered.  It will require about $2,000 to repair the damage.  The interior was uninjured.”  The building was repaired and today looks much the same as it did before the storm.

A survey of the Washington Post headlines from late September-early October 1896 shows that the entire DC area was affected by the storm.  In some ways the newspaper coverage is reminiscent of this past week’s during Hurricane Sandy: details of damage, fatalities, injuries, lost communication, and anticipated costs.  On the other hand, the 1896 storm hit on September 29th, but the Sentinel was a weekly paper; residents had to wait until Friday for their local news.

Today (September 19, 2012) is Ask a Curator Day!  I encourage those of you on Twitter to make good use of the opportunity; the website gives hints on what to ask, and lists participating museums.  Since MCHS does not (yet?) have a Twitter account, we’re doing this a little informally, through Facebook and WordPress.  So pretend this photo* is me, eagerly awaiting your questions!

Our Facebook page has yielded one question for today’s blog: Was author Upton Sinclair – full name Upton Beall Sinclair, Jr. – related to Upton Beall of Rockville?  The answer is a qualified Yes.  Jane Sween** and I spent some time in the MCHS Library this morning trying to track down the exact relationship, with no immediate results; but we do believe that he is related to ‘our’ Upton (1770-1827), the first owner of the Beall-Dawson House (now our museum).  Though our Upton’s line did not continue past his daughters, he was from a large family, and the name Upton pops up here and there.  (Jane suggested I recommend that the questioner come in and help us out by doing some genealogical research; otherwise, I’ll post an update if/when I sort it out.)  On a more concrete note, I did learn this morning that Upton Sinclair lived in Bethesda’s Grosvenor Park apartments in 1966, so there’s another local connection for you!

The fourth and fifth grade students who visit us on school tours always ask fantastic questions.  My favorite came several years ago: What pets did the Bealls and Dawsons have, and were there any veterinarians in Rockville?  The latter part is somewhat long and involved and will probably end up on a future blog, but to answer the first part, we know both families had cats.  In 1837, Upton’s daughter Jane wrote to her sister Matilda in Georgetown, reporting on the doings at home: “We are all quite well except [sister] Peggy’s pretty kitten, which she thinks has the whooping cough.”  A few generations later, Rockville’s student-run Midget newspaper reported on March 25, 1909 that John Dawson’s 12 year old cat was “killed by the electric cars” (that is, he or she was hit by the streetcar, which ran down West Montgomery Avenue).  There were probably many other cats, and perhaps dogs as well, who lived at the Beall-Dawson House over the years; but in the way of these things, their lives were not recorded.

Have these answers brought other questions to your mind?  Let me know!   (They don’t have to be about the Beall-Dawson House, I promise.)  Leave a comment here, or post on our Facebook page. And don’t forget to tweet some questions at other curators around the world today!

* This photo actually shows an unidentified woman participating in a radio interview with Stella Werner and Judge Charles Woodward on WBCC, circa 1955.

** Jane was our Librarian for many years; if Jane thinks Sinclair is related to our Bealls, he probably is.