Thursday, November 2, 2017

What's In A Mattress?

Please enjoy this installment of New Stories From Old New Castle: Student Perspectives on New Castle’s Past, Present, and Future. Students created the blog entries as part of the Spring 2017 University of Delaware Museum Studies Class, Historical Properties (Museum Studies 605), taught on-site in partnership with the New Castle Historical Society

Sarah McNamara

As part of the Historic Properties course, in collaboration with the New Castle Historical Society and the University of Delaware Museum Studies Program, students were encouraged develop “interpretive interventions” for the historical society to use in one of the historic homes. These interpretive changes were intended to be small-scale and low-cost while complementing and extending the existing interpretive framework. I walked through the Amstel House with Dan Citron, the Executive Director of New Castle Historical Society to develop a small addition to the furnishing plan.
View of the exterior of the Amstel House located in Historic New Castle. Image courtesy of the New Castle Historical Society.

One of our final stops in the house tour is the upstairs bedroom. The most notable piece of furniture in the room is a large bedstead with a small, empty trundle bed peeking from underneath.

The current furnishing of the upstairs bedroom in the Amstel house includes this bedstead with a smaller trundle bed peeking out from underneath. Image by author.

This detail of the trundle bed provides insight to the bed's construction, but the addition of a mattress would give visitors a better understanding of its purpose in the room. Image by author.

Seeing the naked trundle bed inspired my project of creating a reproduction mattress to give guests more context for understanding function this piece of furniture. I decided to volunteer my time and effort to make a simple stuffed mattress. How hard could it be to create what I thought was just a larger version of a pillow?

I rolled up my sleeves and dug into research because I wanted my mattress to be as historically accurate as possible. Unfortunately, I found since mattresses are heavily used utilitarian objects, few historic examples have survived. This did not stop me! I soon learned that making mattresses in the past often required the skilled labor of upholsterers, and the upholstery trade was one of the most prestigious and lucrative craft professions in the 18th century. Using Thomas Webster’s Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy and other secondary sources, I determined the typical materials of period mattresses were ticking fabric for the exterior and feathers, wool, or straw for the stuffing.

This schematic in the Winterthur Museum Galleries displays the many layers that may have been present in historic bedding. The feather bed rests on a straw mattress, and both are encased in ticking fabric. Image by author.

Each material choice had an influence on the comfort, cost, and status of the object in the past, with feathers being the softest and therefore most expensive. This research brought me to the crux of my recommendation: What materials should be used for the reproduction mattress? I had to consider many variables including historical accuracy, affordability, and ease of maintenance. All museums face these issues while developing their interpretive plans.

New Castle Historical Society will ultimately decide whether the reproduction mattress will be added to the furnishing plans of the bedroom in the Amstel House. Regardless, I have gained an even greater appreciation for the time, research, and thoughtfulness that goes into even the smallest of interpretive changes in historic house museums.

For further information on historic mattresses, I recommend:
Crowley, John E. The Invention of Comfort: Sensibilities and Design in Early Modern Britain and Early America. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001.

Miller, Marla R. Betsy Ross and the Making of America. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2010.

Webster, Thomas. Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1845.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Even Old New Castle was Once New Amstel: European Rivalry in the Delaware Valley

Please enjoy this installment of New Stories From Old New Castle: Student Perspectives on New Castle’s Past, Present, and Future. Students created the blog entries as part of the Spring 2017 University of Delaware Museum Studies Class, Historical Properties (Museum Studies 605), taught on-site in partnership with the New Castle Historical Society

Aliza Alperin-Sheriff

During the 1600s, the Dutch, the Swedes, and the English all competed for control of the Delaware Valley. The Dutch and the Swedes were primarily interested in access to the fur trade with the Lenni Lenape, the local Native Americans. The English saw the Delaware Valley as a way to connect their colonies in New England and the Chesapeake region, thereby gaining control of the entire eastern seaboard.

The first European to lay eyes on the Delaware Bay was Henry Hudson in 1609. Although he was English, the Dutch employed him to find the Northwest Passage. Hudson found the Delaware River too shallow to navigate, so he continued north where he claimed the area that became New York (then called New Amsterdam) and explored the river that today bears his name.

A Dutch map of the Delaware Valley. From the Library of Congress.

After Hudson, the Dutch continued to explore the Delaware Bay and River. They set up a few trading posts and found a sandy-shored bend in the river that they called Sandhoek. This later became the site of New Castle. But the Dutch were far more focused on New Amsterdam and the North River (the Hudson), than the South River (the Delaware). This benign neglect created an opportunity for Sweden to establish its own colony in the Delaware Valley.

The Swedes bought land near Sandhoek from the Lenape in 1638. They built a fort at the point where the Christina and the Brandywine Rivers join to form the Delaware and sent colonists to populate New Sweden and farm along the river. But Swedish control of the Delaware Valley was short-lived.
New Castle and the Delaware River, c. 2017

In 1651, Peter Stuyvesant, the renowned director-general of New Amsterdam, decided he wanted the Dutch to regain control of the Delaware Valley. After determining that Sandhoek was an important strategic location between New Sweden and the Delaware Bay, he purchased the land from the Lenape and built Fort Casimir. With this purchase, Stuyvesant officially put an end to New Sweden in 1655.

A year later, the city of Amsterdam took ownership of the settlement around Fort Casimir and renamed the area New Amstel. Amsterdam was the only city ever to have its own American colony. It was a diligent colonizer, building up the local economy and sending over settlers. However, Amsterdammer control was also destined to be a short chapter of New Castle’s history.

In 1664, King Charles II gave his brother the area encompassing what is today New York and New Jersey when the English took New Amsterdam from the Dutch. The man in charge of the effort, Colonel Richard Nicholls, decided he also wanted control of New Amstel, although it had not been included in the land grant. The English easily crushed the forces at Fort Casimir. With that defeat the era of European rivalry over the Delaware Valley came to an end and British sovereignty over North America ascended. The following year the settlers in New Amstel decided to rename their village New Castle.

Historic American Buildings Survey photo. The Tile House, a remnant of Dutch life in New Castle, was razed in the late nineteenth century. From the Library of Congress.  

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

New Adventures at Old Town Hall

This summer, I spent eight weeks working on an exhibition script at the Delaware Historical Society in Wilmington. The Society will soon be reopening Old Town Hall, a building that served a central role in Wilmington life from its completion in 1799 until the present. The space will feature an exhibition about the building’s history and significance to Wilmington’s past. As part of this effort, I spent my time with the Society researching the space’s history, both as a physical structure and as a civic, social, cultural, and even economic center of the city.

My exploration yielded fascinating stories. The building’s roles in city life went far beyond the functions we associate with a town or city hall today. The building hosted Presidents, inventors, and entertainers. It became a place where its residents gathered in discussion, mourning, and celebration. It acted as a meeting place for several important groups, ranging from local fire companies to the Red Cross. The interesting stories that I discovered far exceed the length of a single blog post, but one of the most interesting themes was the space’s ability to act as both a central place for local activity and a way for the people of Wilmington to engage in national (and at times, international) affairs.

Wilmingtonians came to Old Town Hall to consider regional concerns like the construction of a canal and railroad lines, to purchase stock in local companies, and to organize on behalf of local politicians. Those who ran afoul of the law were placed in the basement's jail cells. Groups like Wilmington’s Community Service met there to address local issues, while other organizations held events like balls and craft expos to raise funds.

At the same time, Old Town Hall became a place where people could look beyond city limits. Anti-slavery and Temperance societies used the space for meetings and events, as did groups in favor of American industrial development and others seeking rights for laborers. People exhibiting the latest inventions, including a miniature steam locomotive, held demonstrations there, while scientists and other intellectuals lectured on their studies. National figures attended receptions, and locals gathered to memorialize the loss of well-known figures like Henry Clay, whose body lay in state at the Hall after his death. Recruitment and meetings of soldiers linked the space to various wars, while Wilmingtonians also gathered to celebrate military triumphs and welcome returning troops.

In addition to housing the Red Cross during World War I, Old Town Hall linked locals to international affairs by becoming an occasional center for discussion about issues affecting other nations, including the demand for the repeal of the legislative union of Great Britain and Ireland. The building was a place that forged connections between Wilmingtonians and local, national, and international happenings.

To uncover the stories behind Old Town Hall’s roles, I took advantage of an array of the Delaware Historical Society’s vast resources. Secondary sources included an architectural study of the space from the renovation during the 1960s, as well as other books about Delaware history that provided leads for further examination. Some of the most helpful primary resources were the extensive newspaper holdings at the Society, which helped to confirm what happened when and document public reactions. The Borough (and later, City) Council Minutes also shed light on how the space was used and controversies about its use. Broadsides announcing meetings supplemented the information, as did photographs and even some objects associated with the space. Occasional letters and other miscellaneous material rounded out my study. It was only through synthesizing information from all of these sources that the story of Old Town Hall could come to light.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

   A Little Bit of Everything: Reflections on an Internship

        I’ve had a productive few months with my internship at the Air Mobility Command Museum. Based in Dover, Delaware, the AMCM is the only museum in the world dedicated to military airlifters and tankers. In plain terms, it tells the story of the cargo planes used by the American military from World War Two to the present day. My jobs at the museum have been varied, but usually involved research and writing projects, museum education, and restoration work.

The Museum's sign and T-33 "Shooting Star" gate guard.
         My research project was to study two interceptor squadrons stationed at Dover Air Force Base during the Cold War, the 98th and 95th Fighter Interceptor Squadron. This project began back in February, but I still managed to find a number of new sources over the summer. The first of these was a set of Official Histories courtesy of the Air Force’s Research Department at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, AL. These consist of quarterly write ups by a member of the squadron, and include things like recent awards, maintenance records, and, especially in the older issues, mortuary notices. Also, two former ground crew members, one from each squadron, were kind enough to provide interviews for the project. These detailed the challenges associated with keeping the fighters in a state of readiness and helped liven up the narrative of dry official histories with human voices.

Squadron patch of the 95th FIS, featuring the 95th's mascot, Mr. Bones.

          From these sources, I wrote a history of each squadron for the museum’s records. Since the 95th is still in service, I sent their history to the historian currently responsible for their records. My research has also produced two articles for the AMCM’s newsletter, one about the aircraft flown by the 98th FIS and another about the 95th’s temporary deployment to Alaska back in the winter of 1969. I was lucky enough to have some lively sources for the latter, namely a newspaper article written by a very disgruntled (and very cold) Information Officer sent on the deployment. Finally, I wrote an advertising piece about the museum that is soon to be bound for Fly Past, a UK based aviation history magazine.
         The education part of my internship consisted of helping with a summer camp for kids at the museum. I gave a quick presentation on the history of flight, led the kids on a pre-flight check of one of the museum’s airplanes, and demonstrated the use of the flameless ration heater used to warm up MREs. Beyond that, my job was to help corral kids and help out my co-teacher in any way that I could.
         Finally, I’ve been helping the restoration team snazz up the cockpits of the museum’s F-101B and F-106. The goal is to display these for the museum’s 30th anniversary in September, during which I plan on acting as a guide for one or both of the aircraft. Reading about airplanes is fun, but going through their maintenance manuals and getting parts of them to work is really something special. The coolest moment so far has been seeing the F-101’s canopy open and close using its still functioning hydraulic system. 

The F-101B with its canopy open. The generator on the left provides power to the aircraft, allowing the canopy to open and close.

            This internship has been an ideal experience. I don’t believe I’ve had two days that are exactly alike, which is beyond fine by me. The only trouble is that it all went by so quickly, although I am planning to keep tabs on the museum so I can pitch in during the semester.  

Monday, August 8, 2016

Behind the scenes: Winterthur exhibitions

Looking back - the summer of 2015 was a busy one for the exhibitions department at Winterthur.  While most of the museum staff were breathing sighs of relief following The Costumes of Downton Abbey (which closed in early January, after drawing an overwhelming amount visitors), it was crunch time in the exhibitions department.  Winterthur opened two shows the first week in September: Tiffany Glass: Painting with Color and Light, and Tiffany: The Color of Luxury.  
Tiffany Glass will be the flagship show until it closes at the end of the year.  It is a “take” show, or an exhibition curated by an outside institution, primarily using loaned objects.  The team worked closely with Lindsy Parrott, Director/Curator of The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass in Queens, N.Y. (, using an object list, images, and text that she provided to design the show.  
As part of my internship, Amy Marks Delaney (Associate Curator of Exhibitions), Nat Caccamo (Chief Preparator), and Raun Townsley (Exhibitions Specialist) allowed me to observe and assist with the preparation and installation of these two exhibits.  
In late July, the objects for Tiffany Glass arrived from New York.

The truck arrives!

Contracts for loan shows can have various restrictions.  I am qualified to handle objects owned by Winterthur, but for insurance purposes, handling of these objects was restricted to permanent staff, so I stood back and observed the process.  

As the truck is unloaded, Associate Registrar Katie Orr makes sure that each crate is accounted for.
The freight elevator loaded up with crates.
Everywhere you looked there were crates . . .
. . . more crates . . .
. . . and more crates still.

The objects needed to acclimate to conditions in the gallery for a couple weeks prior to installation.  We stored them behind a partition in the gallery while the rest of the space was prepared.

I painted display cases to match the wall color.

After the gallery was ready, the crates were moved to their approximate installation locations to save time during installation week.  The second week in August, we met the curator, Lindsy, and the conservator, Susan; they were a great pair to work with, which made the three day process go very smoothly!

The installation game plan.
Since I couldn’t move the crates, I helped direct them to the proper areas.
The wall brackets and risers came on the truck with the objects, and were painted to match the gallery.

After installation, I worked on dry-mounting the graphics and text panels that Amy designed. She printed the panels onto large sheets of special paper, which I then cut out and adhered to some thick board using a special adhesive paper in between.

Fresh off the printer!

In process.
The iron used to activate the adhesive.  It works like a giant panini press!
All of the small labels and panels completed, and ready for installation!

I won’t spoil the final result, so if you want to see how the exhibition turned out, you will have to visit Winterthur in person (through January 3) or online!
Jennifer Briggs  is a May 2016 graduate of the University of Delaware, with her  M.A. in American Material Culture and graduate certificate in Museum Studies.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Idea to Execution: Exhibit Development at the Marshall Steam Museum

This summer I spent my time working with the Friends of Auburn Heights Preserve at the Marshall Steam Museum. The Marshall Steam Museum houses a collection of antique automobiles and the world’s largest operating collection of Stanley Steam Cars. In addition to steam cars the museum also houses a 1914 Ford Model T, a 1916 Rauch and Lang Electric Car, two 1930s Packard’s, and 1/8th size coal fired steam trains that circle the property. 

The museum was preparing for a new exhibit, Letting Off Steam: The Stanley Legacy. Although most of the research and design was done before I started in June, there was one section of the exhibit that still needed to be completed. Thus, I was put in charge of brainstorming, researching, designing, and assembling an interactive activity and wall panel that talked about how to determine the condition of an object and help people understand how cars and other objects age over time. 

In order to make the museum exhibit more engaging we wanted to have interactive activities for children, and adults, to participate in. One such activity is a condition report. The goal of this activity was to allow people to not only see but also touch old objects, starting conversations and deepening understanding of the work that goes into preserving objects for future generations to enjoy.

Looking in the attic a number of objects were found that can be used as teaching tools, objects that the public can touch. In designing the condition report activity I took into consideration the objects available as well as the basic elements that curators and conservators look for when assessing an object. Giving people measuring tapes and magnifying glasses they are encouraged to take a closer look at the objects and try to determine the materials used, the structural condition, and if there is anything they find interesting or unique.

When designing the condition report activity it became clear that some of the questions conservators ask needed more explanation. This led to the development of Agents of Deterioration, a museum panel that describes the most common reasons objects deteriorate.

The first step in developing the exhibit display was to conceptualize and research my idea. My goal was to explain some of the most common agents of deterioration that threaten museum, and personal, collections. After some research I decided to focus on Fire, Water, Humidity, Physical Force, Light, and Pests. 

Once my research was complete, the next step was to design and prototype the display. This was done by printing the display out as a series of tiles that could be taped together. Doing this allowed me to see how the exhibit panel looked and determine what changes needed to be made before assembling the final product. Prototyping was useful because it allowed me see if the text size was readable or if it needed to be bigger. 

Finally, the third, and final, step was to assemble the exhibit display. After final changes were made, the text and pictures were printed, turned into large stickers, and mounted onto PVC. From there, the display elements were attached to the wall panel and put in place for future visitors to enjoy.

Working at the Marshall Steam Museum taught me a lot about exhibit development from idea to execution. In addition to learning about exhibit development I had the chance to see what it is like to work in a small museum and the challenges that small museums face in their day to day operation.

Kathleen Burns is working towards an M.A. in History and graduate certificate in Museum Studies and will graduate in May 2017.