by Kelli R. Coles
Henry Francis du Pont, a collector and horticulturist, grew up in what is now known as the Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library. In the 1960s he opened his childhood home to share and educate the public on early American decorative arts. The 175-room house located in the Brandywine Valley of Delaware is a backdrop for the priceless collection of nearly 90,000 objects. This past September, the Institute hosted a two-week program which featured lectures and workshops on American furniture styles, glass, ceramics, metals, textiles, lighting, and paintings from the collection that spans the 1600s through 1850.
While the design and history of these works of art were emphasized throughout discussions and demonstrations, participants also learned of international influences. Artists and furniture makers looked toward London fashion and style as early influence and in later years, design elements reflect trends in Chinese and French culture. Furniture and ceramics crafted locally in Pennsylvania drew from German influence after the influx of German immigrants to the region.
As a designer and preservationist, I was amongst a diverse group of participants which included docents, curators, appraisers, furniture dealers, researchers, and travel guides. This unique mix of disciplines brought assorted viewpoints into our classes and workshops which covered Conservation 101, metals and textiles, main stack and rare books, and manuscripts.
Over the two week program we gained familiarity with the departments at Winterthur and had free time to explore the grounds, which sits on a 1,000-acre preserve of meadows and woodlands in addition to a 60-acre garden that was designed by du Pont. After hours we were given the opportunity to research in the library and rare book archives. I came across an original copy of Chippendale’s The Gentleman & Cabinetmaker’s Director, published in 1762 and Ackermann’s Repository, a ladies journal published monthly in the first half of the 19th century in England.
My interest and individual research consisted of African American cabinetmakers, including Thomas Day of Virginia and Thomas Gross and Thomas Gross, Jr. who lived and worked in Philadelphia, for time, at 193 South 6th Street. Another Philadelphian, James Forten, a well-known African American sailmaker and abolitionist, is another great interest of mine. During my stay I did not find any information to further my knowledge on him. However, one rare treasure I found was the diary of James Forten’s granddaughter Charlotte Forten-Grimke, which I had the honor of reading over the 2 weeks I was in Delaware.
While studying at Winterthur my desire and passion for learning and documenting African American Philadelphians of the 18th and 19th Century was reinvigorated. I will most likely never look at an antique chair, portrait or light fixture the same way! I became aware of so many other collections that contain information on African American Philadelphians that I want to explore. The Bienes Center for the Literary Arts in Ft. Lauderdale, FL held an exhibition in early 2000 entitled Drapetomania, A Disease Called Freedom: An Exhibition of 18th, 19th, and 20th Century Material Culture of the African Experience in the Americas from the Collection of Derrick Joshua Beard. The book from the exhibition mentions William Whippen, who started The Reading Room in Philadelphia for “the mental improvement of people of color”. It also discusses the African American men who started the African American Historical Society and whose collections are now housed in The Library Company or Historical Society with hundreds of articles, photos, scrapbooks on the happenings in early Philadelphia. Books like this among so many other collections contain information I cannot wait to explore and report on my findings.
Stay tuned for my next blog post on my findings and future research.
Posted in Education