Posts Tagged ‘18th century Maine’

In early 1908 an unassuming suitcase was delivered to the Old Gaol Museum (now part of Old York). When Museum custodian Sophia Turner (1856–1936) opened the case, however, she realized immediately that the contents were far from ordinary—an almost-complete set of colonial American crewelwork bed hangings. The whimsical embroidered flowering vines, fruit trees, and animals as fresh in color as the day they were made. A lyrical poem by Isaac Watts, “Meditation in a Grove” (published in Horae Lyricae, 1706), adorns the inner valances, and is the only known use of verse on a set of American bed hangings.

Bed Hanging Suitcase.jpg

The set was created by Mary Swett Bulman (1715–1791) of York, Maine, in the 1730s, and consists of four curtains, a head cloth, tester cloth, three outer valances, and three inner valances. The embroideries came to the Old Gaol Museum as an entirely unexpected gift from Anna Everett (1825–1909) of Roxbury, Massachusetts. A relative of the Swett family by marriage, Everett sent the embroideries to the Old Gaol just a few months before her death.

1961.2-entire bed by MFA

Today, the bed hangings are the crown jewel of Old York’s collection, and are widely considered a national treasure. They have been on almost continuous display since they arrived in 1908, and although they are in exceptional condition for their age, they have suffered somewhat from more than 100 years of exposure.

The Museum is pleased to announce that this past summer it became the recipient of a $35,000 grant from The Coby Foundation of New York City to conserve the Bulman bed hangings. The grant will allow Old York to have the textiles cleaned and stabilized, as part of a larger project to create a new, more comprehensive, and preservation-minded installation for them in the museum’s gallery.

The conservation of the textiles will be carried out over the next year, and the bed hangings will be placed back on public view by the end of 2016. With the guidance of an advisory panel of renowned curators and textile experts, Old York intends to take this opportunity to comprehensively document and study the embroideries, hoping to reveal more about the history of the textiles, the people who made and cared for them, as well as their construction and curious design.

We will be telling the fascinating history of these bed hangings through a series of posts on this blog, introducing readers to the talented team of experts involved in the project, as well as documenting the conservation and reinstallation process, and sharing new findings. Please join us on this incredible journey!

The Coby Foundation was established in 1994 by Irene Zambelli Silverman in honor of her mother, Irene Meladakis Zambelli. Mrs. Silverman described her mother as “the finest needlewoman in New York.” The Foundation funds projects in the textile and needle arts field. Its funding is limited to non-profit organizations in the Mid-Atlantic and New England. Old York is extremely grateful to the Foundation for its support of this important project.

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This particular medal belonged to Joseph Albie Sewall (1839-1922) of York who served as a private in Company G, 27th Maine. Contracted to a 9-month campaign, the 25th Maine was first asked to stay behind to defend Washington, D.C. in June, 1863,  due to the invasion of Pennsylvania by Robert E. Lee (the Gettysburg Campaign). They declined. The 27th Maine was then asked to help and 300 men agreed to stay behind. Initially, these soldiers were told that “Medals of Honor would be given to that portion of the regiment that volunteered to remain.” The battle was soon over and they left Washington for home on July 4th, reuniting with the rest of the regiment in Portland for their mustering out on July 17th. Later there was a disagreement as to which of the men actually served since records had not been kept. Commanding officer Lieutenant Colonel Mark F. Wentworth, who had witnessed great sacrifice and valor in the battlefields, did not believe that the soldiers of the 27th deserved the medals. A few of the medals were distributed unofficially, but were purged by congress in 1917. This medal was given to the Museums of Old York by Joseph’s granddaughter, Anne Elizabeth  (Sewall) Bowden in 1970.

There were a total of 949 men listed on the muster rolls for the 27th Maine. During their service, the regiment lost nineteen men by disease and one was killed by the accidental discharge of his musket.

The medal is also known as “Minerva Repulsing Discord”. Taken in the context of the Civil War soldiers and sailors struggling to overcome the discord of the states and preserve the Union, the design was as fitting as it was symbolic. The medal depicts Minerva, the Roman virgin goddess of wisdom, fighting Discord, the Roman goddess of strife.


Reverse side is engraved, “The Congress to Joseph A. Sewall, C. G. 27th Me. Vol.”




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This week’s mystery object belonged to WWII veteran Roland Winslow Junkins (1925-2002). He served with the 83rd and 89th infantry divisions during WWII in Germany, France and post-war Austria. 

This shell casing-turned into shot glasses and carrier-set was made for Roland’s 20th birthday by two German prisoners of war, Erich Ellinghausen and Hans-Jochen Falk, whom Junkins had befriended while serving at Camp Lucky Strike, in Normandy, France. The German shells date between 1936-1938 and were brought together in their new form in 1945.

Decorative items made by soldiers, prisoners of war or civilians from the refuse connected to war are commonly called “trench art”. The Museums of Old York has trench art from both WWI and WWII in its collections.


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This little doll was purchased at the Marshall House in York Harbor, Maine in 1935 or 1936 for little Betsy Evans, whose grandparents owned and operated the fashionable hotel.

The style of the clothes the German-made doll wears is more typical of clothes worn ca. 1845-1850. However, this style was also worn by a communal religious group known as the Shakers well into the 20th century. The Shakers (The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing) were one of many groups of people, including Native Americans, who used to come to the Marshall House to sell their wares to tourists.

The doll’s clothes appear to have been made by Sister Eleanor Philbrick (1899-1976), originally from the Alfred Shaker Village. When the Alfred community was forced to close in 1931 due to an aging and dwindling membership, Sister Eleanor joined the Sabbathday Lake Shaker community, which actively sold its wares in York. Sister Eleanor’s dolls can be identified by the dresses’ large yokes and by the use of felt and muslin.

Sabbathday Lake, located in New Gloucester, Maine is the only active Shaker community in the world.


                                          A second example of the mystery doll!

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This week’s mystery object is a bedkey! Bedkeys were used to tighten the ropes which served as boxsprings for mattresses  on early beds. The old saying, “Sleep tight and don’t let the bed bugs bite”, refers to the fact that the bed’s ropes had to be tightened from time to time to keep the mattress from sagging, and that there were often bugs in the straw ticking!


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This pine restraining chair dates to about c1810-1830. There are slots throughout the chair, on the back, on the wings, under the armrests and on the base which prevented the person seated from moving freely. There is a hole in the center of the seat and a shelf located under the seat to hold a chamber pot suggesting that a person would have been kept in the chair over long periods of time. It has a history of being used in York County, Maine.

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This week’s mystery object was used to lend a little comfort to long Puritan Sunday sermons. The Museums of Old York has two armrests in the collections.

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Last week’s mystery object was brought back to York from China by Louise Caroline (Wilcox) Putnam (1822-1894). Louise, the wife of Captain William E. Putnam (c1811-1868), traveled to China with her husband several times in the mid-19th century. The headrest was donated to the Museums of Old York by her great-niece, Dorothy Hungerford. The Museums of Old York owns and interprets the Emerson-Wilcox House, the home in which Louise was born and died. The house still contains many things Louise brought back from China. If you have the chance, come and visit us!

As uncomfortable as a wooden-framed rattan-covered pillow may seem, China also made headrests out of porcelain!

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This style of eel spear is also called “European spears” or mud spears. The ends of saw-toothed blades are tapered, guiding the eel’s body between the blades. The eel is forced between the tines, pinching the body. The saw teeth snag the tough eel skin, preventing the eel from escaping. Although this was designed for spearing eels, it was also used for flat fish like founder, sole and halibut.


Thistle-shaped eel spears, like the one shown above, are designed for winter use when eels have a thicker layer of fat under their skin. They generally consist of 2-16 hooked tines in a fan-shaped array. The dull-edged central blade protects the thinner tines from rocks.

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This gauge belonged to Charles Lord of York, Maine. Lord owned a large lobster pound at the end of Varrell Lane on the York River. Gauges like this one are used to check length of lobster body’s shell to see if it was of legal size. Measurements are taken from the eyesocket to back of the carapace. Double gauges like this one give both the minimum and maximum measurements.

This is an older gauge. Today in Maine lobsters need to be at least 3-1/4″ (eyesocket to carapace) to allow juvenile lobsters the chance to mature and reproduce before they can be harvested and no bigger than 5″ to protect the large, healthy breeding stock.

Below is an example of a modern lobster gauge. This one belonged to Sam Sewall of York. The inverted V on the left is for v-notching (marking) the tail flipper of egg bearing females. The practice of v-notching originated in Maine, dating back to the early 1900’s. V-notched females cannot be harvested.

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