It is a common misconception that “no one is really from DC” – and, by extension, that no one is from Montgomery County. Yes, the area is home to many newcomers . . . but ask around, and you* might be surprised by the number of people you meet who grew up here, whose parents are from here, and who can claim a few (or many) ancestral generations with ties to the DC area. I admit, even I am sometimes pleasantly surprised when I meet a fellow County native. Recently we had a minor electrical problem in the office; the technician who came out was more than happy to tell us historians about growing up in Glenmont in the 1960s.

This brings us, in a somewhat roundabout way, to today’s artifact: a wooden desk chair, believed to have been used in the Glenmont Elementary School. It was donated in 2006 by Robert Faber, who said it had been purchased by a friend when Glenmont E.S. closed, and later given to him because he’d attended the school himself.


The chair is made of wood (pine?), with metal screws and a brass-colored metal brace where the arm of the desk meets the back. The back is 32″ tall; the little attached desk surface is 11.5″ by 12″. There is a stencil on the underside, ending in 17, but it’s not terribly legible; I can’t tell if it represents a manufacturer, or was simply an inventory number (and, sadly, it does not appear to read “Glenmont E.S.”). Based on the number of similar examples to be found online, this was a fairly standard, common school chair design in the early-mid 20th century.

F2006.21.01 underside

Ours has been refinished, sometime between the school’s close-out sale and the Historical Society donation, and it looks great – but, delightfully, the refinisher left the underside of the desk alone. Though there are no helpful names or dates carved in, there’s still evidence of the chair’s original use: scratches, pencil scribbles, and even a few faint vestiges of dried-up gum.  This was definitely a used piece of furniture, not something that sat idly in a supply closet.

F2006.21.01 desk detail

The Glenmont school was located at what is now the intersection of Georgia Avenue and Randolph Road, just north of Wheaton. (On the map below, from 1948, Randolph Road hasn’t yet been extended to Georgia.) It opened in 1926, with 125 students from Aspen Hill, Glenmont, Layhill, and Wheaton in attendance. Enrollment rose over the next few decades, and the school was enlarged several times – including a 1946 addition, designed by local architect V.T.H. Bien in a modern style. By the late 1970s, however, demographic changes meant enrollment was dropping at once-bustling suburban schools. Many Montgomery County public schools closed their doors in the 1970s-80s; Glenmont was one of them, closing in 1977.

The Glenmont area, including the school (in pink, just below the "GlenmontT" name). From the 1948 Klinge Atlas of Montgomery County, MCHS Library collections.

The Glenmont area, including the school (in pink, just below the “Glenmont” name). From the 1948 Klinge Atlas of Montgomery County, MCHS Library collections.

By the 1990s some of the school had been torn down, but pieces remained; Bien’s addition, for example, was used as a commercial fitness center for many years. (Photos of the school’s various buildings, including the Bien addition, can be found in this architectural survey – although, note that the first page includes an inaccurate opening date for the school.) Construction of the Glenmont Metro Station, begun in 1993 and finished in 1998, negatively impacted the site; in the early 2000s, historic designation for the remaining buildings was denied. Today, nothing of the school physically remains – although, in development plans for the area, the corner is still sometimes called the “old Glenmont School site.”

The buildings are gone, but thanks to a devoted PTA, much of Glenmont E.S.’s history can be found here at the Historical Society. In addition to our little chair, the artifact collections include 1960s-70s trophies, awards, and plaques, likely displayed in the lobby until the school’s closure. In our archives we have PTA scrapbooks and albums, from 1926 through 1977, filled with photos, programs, handbooks, meeting minutes, dance tickets, and more – all of it giving us information on faculty, students, facilities, curricula, and student activities. What I have not yet found in this great resource is anything that shows or references our chair and its friends. One 1942 photo (detail below) from the PTA scrapbook shows similar chairs in use, but they have metal legs; perhaps that means the all-wood chairs dated from earlier in the school’s history. Do any Glenmont alumni remember sitting in wooden chair/desk combos in their youth?

Glenmont Elementary School students, 1942. From the G.E.S. PTA scrapbook, MCHS Library collections.

Glenmont Elementary School students, 1942. From the G.E.S. PTA scrapbook, MCHS Library collections.

*Unless “you” are already aware of the high number of natives, of course.


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


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.”


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.)


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.


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.


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!

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.

two highchairs
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.


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:



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).


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.

f205629-2It will not surprise long-time readers of the blog to learn that here is yet another one of my favorite artifacts in the museum.  I like painted furniture, and I like Neoclassical (a.k.a. “Hey, let’s pretend we live in ancient Greece!”) designs.  This little side chair, and its many friends in other museums, combine those two elements into the perfect, if probably uncomfortable, seat.  Our example features a caned seat, and gilt and colored painted decoration.  It was donated by the Anderson family of Rockville, though unfortunately its earlier history is unknown; it was most likely part of a larger set at one time.

The chair has lost its original maker’s label, but the form and the decoration mean it was most likely made in Baltimore in the 1820s or ‘30s.  The “klismos chair” (here’s a more traditional version than ours, also made in Baltimore) was a popular style of seating in the early 19th century, part of the aforementioned Neoclassical movement inspired by the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the mid 18th century.  Clothing, fine arts, and decorative arts were affected by the fashion for all things Ancient, and the look became associated with the era around the late 18th and early 19th centuries variously known as Empire, Regency, or Federal. Our “Grecian sofa” is another example of this style of furniture; and here are some earlier examples from the London fashion magazine Ackermann’s Repository of Arts, 1815:

In the early 19th century, Baltimore furniture makers became known for their specialization in “fancy” painted furniture, including variations on the popular ancient forms.  Most were painted a background color – often white, black, yellow, or green – with lots of painted decorations (painted freehand, or using stencils) on legs, rails and other convenient surfaces.  Though painted furniture was produced in other cities, a chair very similar to ours in the collections of the Maryland Historical Society is described in a 1984 exhibit catalog as exhibiting “typical Baltimore features . . . short turned stiles ending at a cluster of ring turnings; a broad horizontal stay rail; side seat rails with raised ‘elbows;’ turned and tapered front legs . . . and spindle-like stretchers.”

painted chair F2056-29

Like ours, the MHS chair features both gilt and colored designs, made with stencils rather than handpainted.  Our chair’s crest rail painting is a stenciled basket of fruit, with a pineapple in the center, surrounded by flowers; there’s ivy on the stay rail, a sunburst on the front seat rail, and something that might be a flame (?) on the stiles and legs.


Baltimore painted furniture has been collectible for many years, but because it was seen as more of a “folk” style, there are still undiscovered pieces to be found at auction or in personal collections (much to the delight of furniture folks). It can be found in many art museums and historic house museums, particularly, though not exclusively, in Baltimore.  If local readers want to take some field trips, check out the painted furniture at the Maryland Historical Society, the Baltimore Museum of Art, Mount Clare Museum House, Homewood, and the newish furniture exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. And by all means, stop by the Beall-Dawson House and visit our own piece! It’s in the Front Hall, by the back door.

Last week we featured an artifact from The Briers, an estate in Olney. The Briers – originally called Silent Retreat – was built in 1854, and was situated off Route 108 (see map at bottom of post). The owner, Josiah Waters Jones, Sr. (1810-1896), was a prosperous farmer; the 1860 census shows that his real estate at that time was worth $10,000 and his personal property worth $20,000. He did not marry until 1864, so the 1860 census shows him alone in his household.

Except that he wasn’t alone. The 1860 Slave Schedule, enumerated separately, shows that Jones claimed ownership of thirteen people, and that his estate included two “slave houses.” This brings us to today’s artifact: a small wooden bench, believed to have been “used by slaves at the Briers as substitute for chairs at the kitchen or cabin table.” (Quoted from our original 1960s catalog card.)  It was donated in 1962 by Mrs. JW (Margaret) Jones, Jr., and can be seen in the Beall-Dawson House in our upstairs slave quarters room.

The seat top measures 8″ x 40″, and the bench is 14″ tall. One leg is a turned and finished piece, and the other three are unfinished, still covered in bark; presumably one kind was a replacement for the other, though it’s not clear which is which. The construction is simple, but it is sturdy and made with some care.  The center of the top is worn smooth, though there are some cut-marks that look like it was used as a cutting board or work surface; it has suffered water damage, chips and scratches, and other signs that this is a utilitarian piece of furniture over 150 years old.

The 1860 Slave Schedule does not, with few exceptions, provide names; instead, only the person’s age, sex and “color” are noted. Mr. Jones’ list includes black females aged 70, 34, 16, and 3, and black males aged 68, 45, 40, 33, 24, 16, 14 and 1. The 13th individual is listed as a 60 year old mulatto male, marked as a “fugitive from the state.”

Fortunately there are other sources to help us give identities to at least a few of these unnamed individuals, some or all of whom may have used this bench. (Indeed, one of them probably made it). Though a name is only part of a person’s story and identity, it can be an important part – and it was a part often denied to enslaved people, at least in the records left by whites.  Using names whenever possible can help to make history human and knowable on a very basic level.  (For a fantastic example of work being done in this area, visit the Virginia Historical Society’s “Unknown No Longer” project.)

In 1867, Maryland commenced a “Slave Census” which listed, by owner (now ex-), those individuals enslaved in 1864 at the time of Maryland’s emancipation. From this, we see that in 1864 The Briers was home to: David Dorsey, 60; Edward Williams, 49; George Thomas, 35; Peter J. Williams, 32; Thomas Williams, 30; Tilghman Debtor, 19; Samuel Debtor, 17; Mary [no surname given], 17; Martha Debtor, 12; Elias Debtor, 8; and Anne Debtor, 2. Tilghman and Samuel Debtor are noted as having enlisted in the Union Army, for which Mr. Jones received $100 compensation each. David Dorsey is, perhaps, the “capable slave Uncle Dave, blacksmith and wheelwright” described by historian Roger Brooke Farquhar in the early 1960s. (For anyone playing along at home with their own copy of Farquhar’s book, Old Homes and History, please note that The Briers is filed under T for “The.”) In the 1870 census, Martha and Elias Detter (Debtor) are “domestic servants” in the Jones household, while David Dorsey and Edward Williams, “farm laborers,” live in their own households in the Olney area.  I have not been able to trace the other people in the County records.

As for the building(s) in which this bench was used, no photos of cabins or “slave houses” at The Briers exist that I’m aware of. Farquhar states that “Josiah Waters Jones, Sr., built in 1853 before the brick house was built, a stone slave quarters.”  The Briers gave way to suburbia in 1962; the house and all the remaining outbuildings were torn down.  It was not entirely forgotten, however.  Streets in the new neighborhood of Olney Mill were named after Montgomery County estates, including “Briars Road” (they spelled it wrong, but oh well), and according to a photo feature in the Washington Star (Jan 10, 1966), the “historic-looking” but entirely fake mill at the entrance to Olney Mill “has been built of stone salvaged from slave quarters, stables and a blacksmith shop found on the Briers.”

Since evidence suggests that at least one cabin was built of stone, The Briers’ quarters may have looked something like this one, at Mt. Carmel in Dickerson.  1936 photo from the HABS collection, Library of Congress.

Interested in the unique challenges of 19th century African-American genealogy? Our own Sween Research Library has many resources, in the form of both printed works and knowledgeable staff and volunteers.  Help can also be found through our Genealogy Club. Other online resources include (a membership-based site),, and

Above: a detail from G.M. Hopkins’ 1879 Atlas of Montgomery County (with my notes), showing the intersection of the Washington & Brookeville Turnpike (Route 97) and the Laytonsville-Sandy Spring Road (Route 108). For further locational assistance, the “Chas. H. Brooke residence” at the top is Falling Green, currently the home of the Olney Boys & Girls Club.

In the Stonestreet Museum of 19th Century Medicine, there is a small wooden armchair. At first glance it’s simply a nice little chair, relatively decorative, nothing terribly special. A closer inspection, however, shows that the chair is in fact braced, wired, glued, taped, screwed and nailed to within an inch of its life. Even one of the old rubber feet has been wired into place. Someone, clearly, loved this little chair, and wanted it to last as long as possible.

It was in fact the favorite chair of Robert William “Doc” Vinson, who ran Vinson’s Drug Store in downtown Rockville from 1900 until his death in 1958. The damage, repairs, and rubber feet all date from the chair’s life in the pharmacy. An August 8, 1957 article in the Montgomery County Sentinel described it as “perhaps the most used piece [in the drug store], an old spoke-back chair, reinforced by wire. Under the occupant’s right leg is a scooped out place made by Doc’s left shoe. He hikes up his left leg and tucks it under the right leg for comfort. This would seem like a difficult exercise for a man as old as Doc, but he performs it still with ease.” (At the time, Mr. Vinson was 85 years old.)

“Doc” or “Willie” Vinson (1872-1958) was one of six children born to Frances Rachel Prout and Judge John T. Vinson of Rockville; his twin brother, Richard Bowie Vinson, died in 1905. “Doc” was not a doctor. He never married (“Just too slow I guess,” he joked to a reporter in 1949) and lived all his life in his childhood home* along with his unmarried siblings Nannie and Thomas. He started working at the town pharmacy in 1900, and by 1911 he had purchased both the business and the building, renaming it Vinson’s Drug Store.

*The Vinson home, torn down in 1961, was replaced with the Rockville Library and Vinson Park (at East Jefferson and Maryland); the library and park were themselves replaced last year, with the new District Courthouse.  This image of the Vinson house was taken around 1890.

Much of the store’s interior stayed exactly the same throughout the years; Mr. Vinson was notorious for neither updating his décor nor cleaning out old stock, even as more modern pharmacies moved into the city. On March 25, 1957 the Washington Star reported that “until his nephew, Rockville real estate man J. Vinson Peter, cleaned it out a few weeks ago, the back room in Mr. Willy’s store was crammed with forgotten herbs and drugs in dust-wrapped bottles.” The store was built in the 1880s, and had previously been owned and/or operated by several men, including D.F. Owens and E.T. Fearon; much of the stock found in the store when it closed in 1958 came from those two gentlemen. Mr. Vinson’s extended family donated some of those items (including the beloved chair) to the Historical Society; other pieces, including the 1914 soda fountain, were given to Peerless Rockville. You can see Doc’s chair, one of his glass display cabinets, and many bottles and tools from the old store in our own Stonestreet Museum, and the soda fountain has been installed in one of the first-floor meeting rooms of the Rockville Memorial Library.

This photo from the March 25, 1957 Star article shows the chair in situ, rubber feet and all, in the drug store.  (I swear it’s there – right above the floor grate.)

And here’s Mr. Vinson himself, shown in the doorway of his store, circa 1950s.  This photo, and the chair itself, were donated by Thomas and George Anderson, Mr. Vinson’s great-nephews.

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.

I’ll let the donor, Rev. Alexander Livesay, describe today’s artifact:

“Turn of the century oak office chair with arms recently refinished and in perfect condition. This chair was moved from the old Red Brick Montgomery Courthouse by the Welfare Department when it moved to the new county office building. In 1967 the chair was all apart lying in a heap on the floor in an office at the County Office Building. I had it glued together in August of that year–in the month of October 1975 it was refinished. Since I’m leaving the county service [in 1977, the year of donation], it should not be lost to the citizens of Montgomery County; therefore, I give it to the Historical Society.”

Rev. Livesay was an Episcopal minister at a number of churches in the DC area; he also served as the Montgomery County Department of Social Services Community Development Director from 1962-63 and 1967-1977, which is how he ended up caring for the chair.

The chair’s journey, described briefly by the donor, reflects – on a small scale – the history of our local government agencies and office buildings. The Montgomery County Welfare Board* was formed in response to the Great Depression in 1934, picking up the efforts of earlier, private organizations. Like many county agencies, the newly-formed Welfare Board had an office in the 1891 Red Brick Courthouse in Rockville where a trained executive, two case workers, and seven relief aides worked (when they weren’t out in the field). Judging from this 1935 photo of the Welfare staff (donated by Gladys Benson, who is pictured ninth from the left), the agency grew rapidly.

By the early 1950s county government offices were spread out among a number of buildings, including both the 1891 and 1931 courthouses; a new County Office Building** at the corner of Jefferson Street and Maryland Avenue opened in 1953, and the Welfare Board moved in soon thereafter. The building was already too small by the 1960s, and it was expanded in 1963 and 1967. In 1964, when plans were being made for that second addition, a newspaper article mentioned that the health and welfare offices were among those to be moved to the new wing. Perhaps the chair just wasn’t built to withstand that many office moves, and that’s why Rev. Livesay, starting his second go-round with the Department in 1967, discovered it “in a heap on the floor.” (I love that description; it makes it sound like the chair just gave up, or fainted, or something.) Otherwise, I’m not sure how a fairly solid piece of furniture ends up in pieces; I hate to think that someone took out their anger on the poor unsuspecting chair.

An office chair with "Bank of England arms" in the 1908 Sears, Roebuck & Co catalog

As for the chair itself, it is oak, nicely (re)finished, with a few discreet repairs and metal braces. The design is a variation on the Bank of England armchair, a popular office chair in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. These chairs were made in both swivel and straight styles; some have padded seats, others are comfortably contoured saddle seats; most are backed with a row of flat spindles, but a few have central splats, whether pierced or plain. An internet search for “Bank of England armchair” brings up a wide variety of these chairs, both vintage and modern. Although I have not found a photo of this particular style in use in the county offices, below are some similar Bank of England chairs in contemporary Red Brick Courthouse photos.

Rev. Livesay saw some potential in this chair, broken as it was. He does not say specifically, but I assume that he used it in his own office after having it repaired and refinished. Recognizing it as a relic – one of a few – that was saved from the removal of the county offices from the Courthouse, he wanted it to be preserved, not just put to use. (And maybe he was afraid that his replacement would completely refurnish the office, and the chair was once again headed for the furniture graveyard.) The Historical Society has not always been so attuned to artifacts from the relatively recent past; I’m thankful that both Rev. Livesay and my curatorial predecessors had a care for its future.

*In 1967 the name was changed to the Department of Public Welfare, and in 1968 to the Department of Social Services.

**The building was dedicated in honor of Councilwoman Stella Werner in 1983.

Photos!  First, the County Commissioner’s Office (in the Red Brick Courthouse), 1913 – donated by Sumner Wood. (Eugene Cissel, at left, is seated in a swivel Bank of England style chair.)  Second, Henry Clinton Allnutt, Register of Wills from 1897 to 1923, in the Oprhans Court – donated by Ellen Allnutt Elgin.  Click on either of the photos to get a larger version, if you want to admire all the lovely furniture and office accessories, including the chairs of course.

It’s A Fine Collection’s second anniversary, which means our readers should be sending me/the blog some cotton (for you traditionalists) or china (as the “modern” choice).  While I await all those packages, here are some cotton, china and other artifacts for you, dear readers.

Today’s post is all about the details, the visual ones.  Since our museums are chock full of artifacts, and we discourage our visitors from crawling around on the floor with a magnifying glass, some of the finer points of the pieces on display can be lost in the shuffle.  Here are a few close-up views to whet your appetite; next time you visit, keep an eye out for these and other hidden gems!  (And if any of these strike your fancy, let me know you’d like a full post on the object and I’ll try to oblige.)

Red-and-black patterned cotton fabric on the late 19th century “Log Cabin” quilt in the slaves’ room.

One of the images on the Flow Blue ceramic pitcher in the bedroom.

A brass paw on the dining room fireplace fender, early 19th century.

Close-up of the painted designs on the circa 1805 tall-case clock in the front hall.

And a (not necessarily very difficult) mystery for you: Can you identify the location of this woman? [She’s on our campus in Rockville – don’t worry, it’s not a county-wide search.]