Prized Relics: Historic Souvenirs from the Collection

Prized Relics: Historic Souvenirs from the Collection
Closed September 5, 2015

In 1923, nine-year-old Dorothy Richardson and her younger brother, Albert, received a card describing a special gift coming to them from their cousin, Caroline Pitkin.  Pitkin, an artist living in New York City, packed a small cardboard box containing natural treasures—bark, small stones and a seal’s tooth—and carefully selected souvenirs from her travels to Europe, California and other places.  With the present she gave the siblings instructions to “start your museum” and the promise of more artifacts to come.

“Prized Relics: Historic Souvenirs from the Collection,” explores the souvenirs and relics that fascinated many Americans in the 1800s and into the 1900s. The show features more than 80 of these intriguing artifacts from the Museum and Library collection, as well as examples from the collection of the Grand Lodge of Masons in Massachusetts. The exhibition explores different kinds of relics and souvenirs connected to domestic life, tourism, Masonic institutions and historic events dating from the 1700s through the 1900s.  “Prized Relics” opens June 14, 2014 and is ongoing.

One of the fascinating artifacts on view is an urn made by Paul Revere to hold a lock of George Washington’s hair, on loan from the Grand Lodge of Massachusetts. Washington’s death in 1799 prompted mourning across the country. Members of the Grand Lodge wrote to Washington’s widow, Martha, to express their sympathy and to request a lock of the former president’s hair. The Grand Lodge commissioned silversmith and Past Grand Master Paul Revere to design and manufacture an urn made out of gold to hold the hair—a physical link to the much-admired leader. Massachusetts Masons treasure the gold urn and display it every three years at the ceremony marking the installation of a new Grand Master.

Quilt fragments may seem unusual artifacts to preserve, but the when the quilt’s history is remembered and recorded, they can be meaningful. Included in the exhibition are pieces cut from a quilt made for Hannah Morgan Russell upon her marriage to Stephen William Little of Newburyport in 1820. Even when this quilt was worn out, fell out of fashion, or was longer used, family members valued fragments of it as a tangible reminder of two families coming together in marriage.

A unique lamp and lighter on view in the exhibition both memorialized a tragedy that befell the USS Maine and advertised cigars.  In 1898 the USS Maine docked in Havana, Cuba, to look after American interests during riots. An explosion destroyed the battleship, killing over 250 crew members. Cigar maker Jacob Stahl, Jr. & Co., capitalized on the wide interest in the disaster and the resulting calls for a war with Spain.  The company named a line of cigars after a surviving hero of the explosion, Bill Anthony. This lamp and lighter, in the form of a shell casing with cast iron legs shaped like cannons, was probably designed for use on a cigar store counter.

Another domestic relic on view is a pair of child’s moccasins. May Abbott Thompson procured them from a performer, storyteller and relic dealer, Frank “Big Thunder” Loring. Loring, Penobscot, lived in Old Town, Maine, not far from Thompson’s home. The shoes were given as a gift to her cousin, Dorothy Skinner, along with a letter explaining their history. Thompson and Skinner both valued and preserved the shoes for their connection with Loring and the Wabanaki culture he embodied. These shoes, like other objects in the exhibition, explore the relics Americans held dear and some of the reasons why they were valued.