The Meaning of an Object: A Look into the National Trust for Historic Preservation's Collections Portal

By Special Contributor posted 01-10-2020 14:10


By Tamar Rabinowitz

Bound by a 6”x 6” exhibit label, museum curators must capture the layered history of an object or artwork in a few very precious words. The materials of our culture, however, contain meanings that extend far beyond the edges of the object label—a single painting, artifact, or tchotchke bear a multitude of intersecting stories.

The National Trust for Historic Preservation Collections Portal brings these many stories to life. Featuring an ever expanding selection from our collection of 60,000 objects and artworks spanning centuries, regions, and styles, the Portal allows visitors to view history from different angles and a diversity of perspectives to uncover the full American story.

Visitors can tour curated digital exhibits that weave together objects from our 21 historic house museums across the country. At the same time, they can take a deep dive into the details and history of a single painting, book, photograph, or kitchen tool to discover the layered meanings that make them a part of our national heritage.  

Take two very different objects, from two very different sites—an 18th-century wooden chest from Belle Grove Plantation and an early 20th-century telephone from the President Woodrow Wilson House—show how the seemingly simple functional pieces of everyday life can illuminate a dynamic American history, encompassing themes such as immigration, gender, technological progress, labor, and race.

Belle Grove: A Blanket Chest

Blanket chest at Belle Grove Plantation
Credit: Belle Grove Plantation

Resting on the floor of the daytime sitting room in the Belle Grove Plantation home is a wooden blanket chest adorned with fading painted yellow, blue, and red geometric shapes. At first glance, the fragile chest with no decorative carvings, an unadorned flat top, and simple butt hinges, appears to be an unassuming functional piece of furniture that could be found in any early American home. And yet, this humble blanket chest offers a glimpse into the interwoven histories of colonial German immigration, material culture and design, as well as the role of women in early American communities.

In the 18th century, approximately 30% of the free and indentured population that settled in the British American colonies were from the German principalities. Jost Hite, founder of the Belle Grove Plantation, immigrated to New York’s Alsatian enclave in 1710 before moving south in 1732. Hite, along with his Scots-Irish business partner, Robert McKay, received a patent for 140,000 acres of land in the Shenandoah valley with the provision that they settle one family per 1000 acres within two years. Hite and McKay, together with 16 German and Scots-Irish families, made their way to the region, bringing with them their language, cultures, and customs. Soon, a thriving German community established itself in the Valley, and along with German language newspapers, German architectural styles, and religious institutions, they also brought with them a distinctive aesthetic tradition of wood craftsmanship that remains a hallmark of German-American culture. That tradition, and the history of immigration that it embodies, is preserved in the Belle Grove blanket chest.

With simple forms, minimalist carving, and an unrivaled sturdiness, German wood furnishings are often easily distinguishable from the more elaborate works of their English neighbors. Simple design, however, was complemented by vibrant painted motifs of plants, animals, and geometric shapes rooted in German aesthetic customs. The popular tulip design featured on this blanket chest, for instance, originated in 16th-century Augsburg and was a common religious symbol evoking the notion of resurrection and regeneration. The closed tulip also came to represent female virtue and the ideal of the young, unmarried woman for whom this chest was made.              

The fact that this chest was made for a young, unmarried woman reveals yet another layer of history stored within this object—the roles of colonial women in German-American communities. Far more than a storage space for bed linens, blanket chests were rich repositories of familial documents including records of birth, baptisms, marriages, and deaths long before government records kept track of these milestones. They also often contained keepsakes, blessings, and other family treasures to be preserved across generations. Upon marriage, young women left their family homes for that of their husband, but the blanket chest and all its contents traveled with her to her husband’s house, rendering German-American women the safeguards of familial customs, communal ties, and the perpetuation of German culture in the new world.

The President Woodrow Wilson House: Telephone

Photograph of the telephone at President Woodrow Wilson House.
Credit: President Woodrow Wilson House

Less than 100 miles away, but nearly two centuries later, another object used to maintain familial and communal connections can be found in the President Woodrow Wilson House kitchen. A wall-mounted telephone, installed in the house built in 1915, supplanted the outdated etiquette of the calling card in welcoming doctors, friends, and diplomats to the Wilson’s Georgian revival home. The modern technology also made the political world accessible to the former President whose limited mobility kept him largely confined to the S Street mansion after his tenure at the White House ended. Far more than a modern tool of communication, however, the Wilson’s phone ‘rings up’ a multilayered history of technology, class, and labor in early 20th-century America.

When the Wilson’s moved into the S Street House in 1921, private telephones were increasingly common in American homes but were still largely considered a luxury. Even as telephone communication expanded exponentially across the United States, racing far ahead of all other industrial nations, there were approximately 12 phones per 100 people in the U.S. in 1922. The Wilson’s private wire allowed the couple to stay connected to D.C.’s political and diplomatic elites even as the former President’s health deteriorated.

While its shape, size, and function can demonstrate the evolution of the technology over time, its place in the Wilson House also points to Wilson’s role as a champion of America’s turn-of-the-Twentieth century technological revolution. Indeed, the Wilson’s private phone calls back to the President’s own deployment of the technology as a symbol of America’s innovative and industrial prowess during his presidency.  In 1913, when the iconic and monumental Woolworth Building in lower Manhattan was completed, a telephone wire connected Wilson in the White House to the building’s electrical system. With a press of a button in Washington, D.C. the President lit up all 80,000 lights in the 60-story Manhattan skyscraper.

While the phone transformed the way Americans connected across the nation, this telephone with intercom altered communication within the walls of individual homes. The S Street telephone therefore also tells the story of the evolution of domestic service in a modern, mechanized world. The Wilson’s used the phone's intercom to speak directly to Mrs. Mary Scott and Mr. Isaac Scott, the couple who worked for decades in the Wilson’s service as head housekeeper and valet to the president. The telephone intercom facilitated communication between Edith, Woodrow, Isaac, and Mary as they were scattered throughout the home, enabling a more efficient and perhaps more demanding system of domestic labor. The modern technology, it would seem, signaled a dramatic shift in the nature of domestic service that occurred in the 1910s and 1920s.

The changing nature of domestic service is intimately bound up with the Great Migration of Southern blacks to Northern cities during the Progressive Era. Limited by racism and segregation, which Woodrow Wilson extended and codified in the federal government, many African Americans were confined to work in the domestic service. Even before migrating to Northern cities, African American women often tried to first secure positions as domestic laborers in urban households in D.C., Philadelphia, or New York The growing population of African Americans in the domestic labor market spurred a marked shift in the structure of that labor from a live-in system to a live-out system. This was in stark contrast to generations of domestic servants who typically lived in the servants’ quarters in their employer’s homes. A telephone, and access to it, enabled communication between domestic laborers and their employers as fewer and fewer lived under the same roof. Far more than a way to connect to friends, the Wilson House telephone and intercom is a lens through which to view a complex, intersecting story of race, class, technology, and labor in the 20th-century.

The mundane objects of daily life that are preserved in the bedrooms, kitchens, and basements of our historic house museums are far more than furnishings and knick-knacks that recreate the look and feel of the past—they are the primary sources that document the lives of the myriad people who interacted with them. With our new Collections Portal, we now have the tools to not only think about these many stories, but to re-imagine how we see them.

Tamar Rabinowitz is the manager of curatorial innovation at the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


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