By C. Malcolm Watkins, Associate Curator, Division of Ethnology, U.S. National Museum
Reprinted from The Chronicle, Volume IV, January, 1951
Of special interest to members of the Early American Industries Association is the Greenwood Gift to the Smithsonian Institution. This comprises a collection which illustrates the arts and living habits of rural Americans prior to 1830.
The collection is the gift of Dr. and Mrs. Arthur M. Greenwood of Marlborough, Massachusetts, and is the result of their personal collecting activity over a period of more than forty years. It is notable for its emphasis upon the implements and furnishings of rural domestic economy, and for its comprehensive scope.
Its acceptance by the Smithsonian marks the entrance of that Institution into the field of colonial cultural historical studies. It is assigned to the Department of Anthropology of the U. S. National Museum, where it is providing a valuable source of data, as well as the specimen necessary for educational exhibits.
At present it is not possible to show the bulk of the collection publicly because of inadequate space. There is, however, an exhibition in progress for an indefinite period which is designed to illustrate with selected examples the nature of the gift. This is to be seen in the foyer of the Natural History Building of the National Museum at Constitution A venue and 10th Street in Washington.
Unlike the art museum’s interpretation of colonial material, the Greenwood Gift does not especially depict the development of American decorative arts (although to a large degree this development is implicit in it). Instead it seeks to show the manner in which ordinary people, residing on farm or in country villages, used to live, particularly in New England. Thus the emphasis falls mostly upon the utensils and appurtenances of everyday activities.
Objects of the Pilgrim century in the collection stand out, of course, because of their age and their rarity. From the student’s point of view a special value attaches to these earlier relics because they document the daily life of the first settlers. There are pieces of furniture from this period illustrating the earliest types of American cabinet work. A turned table with carved drawer-front, from Plymouth, is perhaps unique. A chair table from southeastern Connecticut; a carved and paneled oak chest from Medway, Massachusetts; a heavy turned slat-back chair dated 1691; carved Bible boxes and candle boxes; a child’s wainscot chair; a fourteen-panel oak chest; an oak Hadley chest remarkable for having no carved surfaces; stands and benches – all these are among the oldest example. Besides furniture, there are many seventeenth-century utensils in earthenware, metal and wood. A huge burl bowl with a long Plymouth history is an important illustration of the latter.
The whole colonial pattern, however, is shown in the smaller and humbler types of objects. Kitchen equipment, of course, fills a prominent place. Woodenware is represented in a wide assortment of plates, burl bowls, ladles, mortar and pestles funnels, spoons, stirring sticks, racks in the shapes of sleds for use in brick ovens, an egg-beater that works on the bow-drill principle, and numerous other classes of specimens. The iron work associated with the kitchen is also represented. There are wrought-iron spoons, hooks, trammels, skewers, and ornamental skewer racks, trivets, broiler of all sort, and toasters. There are also andirons that range from a large pair nearly four feet tall and tipped with brass finials to tiny fire-dog for keeping a smallI fire of kindling in the corner of the fireplace.
There are various utensils whose uses would be forgotten except for the information which has survived them. One of these is a wooden stick for smoothing beaver hats. Another is a pair of wooden tongs with sheet iron tips which served as a pipe lighter in the early days of Sudbury, Massachusetts. Three perforated tin containers used for burning sulphur to “sterilize” sick rooms throw light on by-gone customs of hygiene. A little hinged pine box put together with wrought iron nails still contains the dried peas it was designed to hold for the children’s game of “Fox and Geese.”
Two small grooved soapstone discs used by an apothecary to grind herbs are among other ordinarily obscure objects.
Implement of home industry are, of course, of particular interest to members of this Association. A soapstone bullet mold inscribed “Junius Burgess, 1823,” illustrates the necessity of making at home many of the things we would invariably buy in a store today. Quilting blocks and block printing stamps and their accessories are in the collection; they are, of course, familiar to the present reader. Less often encountered are recipe book for making dye, of which the Greenwood collection has an interesting early nineteenth-century example from Longmeadow, Massachusetts, together with packages of dye material made from the recipes. Equipment for broom-making, shoemaking, and blacksmithing are also in the collection.
There are, besides, numerous specimens of lighting utensils, and such classifications of objects as articles of the toilet, including a group of so-called “hired-man’s” mirrors. One of the most interesting sections is concerned with education, and there is equipment for setting up in the eventual future a complete school-room of the early nineteenth-century. Folk art is well represented in paintings, samplers, silhouettes, and wood carvings. Glass and ceramics are extensively covered in the collection, also, as are early types of textiles and embroideries.
That part of the collection not exhibited publicly is so arranged in open storage that it can easily be seen upon request. Members of the EAIA are welcome to visit this and are invited to write for appointments to the Department of Anthropology, U. S. National Museum, Washington 25, D. C.
Published by Permission of the Secretary of the Smithsonian
5 thoughts on “‘The Greenwood Gift to The Smithsonian Institution’”
Thanks so much for posting this. I never met Malcolm but a few years ago I curated an exhibit about him, so this was a real treat!
Thanks Megan for posting old Chronicle articles like this, its a good reminder of what a great research source they are….Cheers
I much enjoyed the article on the GREENWOOD COLLECTION and the very basic rural colonial objects.
Great idea and a real “force multiplier.”
Curating previous content is a gift both to our readers and to the original writers. I was six when this was published so it’s new to me and becomes doubly interesting because it’s also a glimpse into how our parents generation shared our interest is even earlier times.
It’s also a gift to original authors. I’m sure C. Malcolm Watkins would be delighted to see something he wrote resurrected from the dead to speak once again to a new generation.
I knew Malcolm Watkins as a gentleman and a scholar. He lectured at Winterthur a number of times for our Fellows, in what was then the Winterthur Program in Early American Culture, now “Material Culture.
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