Friday, June 15, 2012

What's New?

 We are told to learn something new every day.  The other day I learned five.  But that doesn’t mean that now I get to shut down mentally for seventy-two hours.
A group of volunteers and staff from Wethersfield Historical Society (including Mars and I) visited Historic Deerfield – “an open-air living history museum dedicated to the heritage and preservation of Deerfield, Massachusetts and the Connecticut River Valley”.   Studying the old is often a way to discover something new.
We broke into four groups, and ours strolled north along “The Street” past Deerfield Academy prep school and various houses of the 18th and 19th century to the “Williams House” – originally built in 1730 by Hinsdale and Anna Williams, then extensively renovated to its present appearance in 1816 by Ebenezer Hinsdale Williams (the son), a landowner and farmer.  A major goal of the refurbishment, according to our guide, was to create an appearance of great wealth by only revamping those portions of the structure that the public would either see from the outside or visit in the interior – for example the house was raised eighteen inches in order to create a sun fan over the front door, and the room in which guests were entertained got a large-scale makeover, while the family’s private sitting room was basically unchanged.  It was a nouveau riche quest for “curb appeal” – both exterior and inside.  Some of the people that Ebenezer Williams was trying to impress lived at our next stop on the tour.

“Built in 1799, the Asa Stebbins House features Federal period architecture, wall treatments, and decorative arts.  It was the first brick house in Deerfield, and the interior of the house features neoclassical furnishings dating from 1790 to 1830.  Inspired by ancient Greek and Roman design, this style was popular in the years following the American Revolution. One of Deerfield’s wealthiest and most highly respected citizens, Stebbins’ selection of brick construction and linear neoclassical design was a stylish departure from earlier Deerfield houses with their wooden clapboards and bold pedimented doorways.  Of special note are French scenic wallpaper panels by Joseph Dufour depicting the voyages of Captain Cook, freehand wall painting that may have been executed by itinerant artist Jared Jessup in 1812, and several portraits by Erastus Salisbury Field of nearby Sunderland, Massachusetts.”

The Stebbins House also contained the first orrery I had ever seen.  It was sitting on a table in a darkened room at the top of the stairway and looked like a small sculpture of five leather balls of various sizes – the largest of which sat at one end next to a round, horizontal circular metal disc, while the rest were grouped around each other at the other extremity.   The device looked capable of movement, although the lack of light made it difficult to see how such activity could be achieved.

When we went downstairs I asked the housesitting docent who happened to be reading “Fifty Shades of Gray” in between visitors, what the contraption was.

“It’s an called an orrery and it was used to teach about the solar system.  You move the planets around by manipulating pulleys.”

“Kind of an educational toy?”


“And how is orrery spelled?”

She reached under her table and brought out a large, wire bound, notebook within which lay the answer.  I pondered the etymology of my newest word discovery intermittently throughout the day.  Later at home I learned from Wikipedia that the first such planetary gadget of the modern era was built in 1704 and presented to the Earl of Orrery.   It was a disappointing word history but an interesting new piece of knowledge nonetheless.

Next we moved further down “The Street” to the site’s Silver Collection comprised of an exceptional assortment of the usual suspects (tankards, tea pots, bowls, etc. Paul Revere, etc.) – and (something completely new to me) “Apostle Spoons”.  These utensils look exactly like what their name implies – Christ or one of his twelve original followers shown at the top of each handle with, or represented by, his own symbol: Christ: cross and orb, Saint Peter: a sword or a key, sometimes a fish, Saint Andrew: a cross, Saint James the Greater: a pilgrim's staff, St. John: the cup of sorrow, Saint Philip: a staff, Saint Bartholomew: a knife, Saint Thomas: a spar, Saint Matthew: an axe or halbert, Saint James the Lesser: a fuller's bat, Saint Jude: a carpenter's set square, Saint Simon Zealotes: a long saw, and Judas Iscariot: a bag of money. 

 “Apostle spoons were particularly popular in Pre-Reformation times when belief in the services of a patron saint was still strong.”   This seems akin to the Spanish settlers of early New Mexico who, in the absence of money or old world skills and technology, painted and carved their own rustic wooden “santos” as objects of devotion and favor seeking.  And, I suspect, just as these southwestern icons have become modern cultural collectibles, so were the Apostle Spoons accumulated and displayed by the status conscious citizens of early Deerfield. 

Our final stop of the day was the Wells-Thorn House – clearly visible by its bright blue exterior.
“Built in 1747, the Wells-Thorn House presents period rooms depicting the lifestyle of Deerfield residents in a progression from the early days of 1725 all the way up to the high-style of the 1850s.  It is furnished to illustrate the development of the agricultural economy, domestic life, and refinement in the Connecticut Valley. The earliest rooms of the Wells-Thorn House show life in Deerfield during the frontier period. As consumer goods became more plentiful, craftsmen expanded their skills, and gentility and modernity replaced security as a concern.  Later period rooms in the house reflect the increased availability of consumer goods and the growing prosperity and sophistication of Deerfield’s residents.”

One indicator of that growing prosperity and sophistication was a framed piece of artwork hanging on a wall that our docent told us was an example of  “schoolgirl art” – a phrase that I later input to my favorite Internet search engine with a lot of apprehension and a little illicit curiosity.  Some of the results – “Shocking Schoolgirl Art - Macabre Manifestations of the 'Lolita ...” – were not a surprise.

As defined by our Deerfield docent however “schoolgirl art” is what they call the artwork created by the female students of educational institutions such as Deerfield Academy, et al.  The medium here was needlework and, unlike orreries and Apostle Spoons, which I had never seen before this outing, I was visually familiar with this type of craft  – we do watch Antiques Roadshow – but not its label. 

At home that evening Mars and I watched a DVD of a PBS program on British royal weddings that we had copied the night before.  I was tired and paying half-attention when I sort of saw something that made me stop and back up the narrative in order to watch it again more closely.  The speaker was talking about the floral arrangements for one of the ceremonies, and the subtitle identifying the talker said he was a member of the “Worshipful Company of Gardeners”.

“The Worshipful Company of Gardeners is one of the Livery Companies of the City of London. An organisation of Gardeners existed in the middle of the fourteenth century; it received a Royal Charter in 1605. The Company no longer exists as a regulatory authority for the sale of produce in London; instead serving as a charitable institution. The Company also performs a ceremonial role; it formally presents bouquets to the Queen and to Princesses upon their wedding, anniversary, or other similar occasion.

The Gardeners' Company ranks sixty-sixth in the order of precedence for Livery Companies. Its motto is In The Sweat Of Thy Brows Shalt Thow Eate Thy Bread.”

The Men’s Garden Club of Wethersfield, to which I belong, pales in literary comparison to this nobly named gang of jardinières.

“Orrery”, “Apostle Spoons”, “Schoolgirl Art”, and the “Worshipful Company of Gardeners” all in one day.  It is almost enough to put even the most ardent logophile – especially one who utilizes ostentatious verbiage to embellish his own curb appeal – at a complete loss for words. 


(B.T.W. – a logophile is a lover of words.  And that would be the fifth new thing.)

Photos by Mars -

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