A is for Arsenic (and other Oddities)

With the Fourth of July and a conveniently placed “floating holiday”, this work week at Winterthur was only three days, and not too much happened. The new Curatorial Fellow arrived (fun fact – she’s a William and Mary graduate!), and I spent most of my time updating notes on objects from the 2016-2017 fiscal year.

So I thought I might spend this week’s post on some of the stranger things I’ve stumbled across in Winterthur’s collection.

(Warning: not necessarily in alphabetical order)

A is for Arsenic…in a Quilt?

1969.0562 – Quilt

1969.0562 Quilt

Full view of quilt, courtesy of Winterthur database.

I keep glancing at the box for this quilt whenever Paula and I are in Textile Storage accessioning print blocks, because the box contains this warning label. Why? I’m actually still not sure. Looking up the accession number in Winterthur’s database yielded some facts – the quilt was made some time between 1800 and 1850 in New England, is made of wool, and was donated to the museum by H.F. du Pont after his death. The database mentions an Analytical Conservation Report from January 13, 1997 located in the object file. That same date is on the warning label as well. Coincidence? I think not.

The object files are located with Registration, and my goal next week is to do some digging in my free time and see if I can find the mysterious report and why this quilt is somehow linked to arsenic.

Here's the label that first caught my eye.

Here’s the label that first caught my eye.

B is for Ben Franklin

1972.0161 A – Etching

Eripuit Coelo Fulmen Sceptrumque Tirannis. Au Genie de Franklin. [The Genius of Franklin].

Ben Franklin - Superhero?

Ben Franklin – Superhero?

The Winterthur museum is massive – full of many fully furnished rooms and objects. Nestled away on the sixth floor is the Franklin Parlor – a tiny room full of art work, figurines, and even chair cushions that pay homage to the Founding Father. This etching, called “The Genius of Franklin”, was made in France in 1778, and features Franklin wearing flowing drapery as the goddess Minerva protects him from a lightning bolt with her shield. A male figure with a helmet swings his sword toward two fallen figures, and a crowned woman holds Franklin’s hand, sitting in front of a globe representing American Liberty (Description from Franklin Parlor Guide Book).

The original wash drawing was made by Jean Honore Fragonard in France, and didn’t necessarily depict Franklin. When Marguerite Gerard made the etching of the drawing, Fragonard may have helped her modify the central figure to resemble Franklin.

A view of the Franklin Parlor, with the etching on the back wall.

A view of the Franklin Parlor, with the etching on the back wall.

J is for Jackie Kennedy

winterthur jackie

The house library has a table with some pictures of Jackie Kennedy, and the Life interview where she discussed her plans to redecorate the White House.

But why is this in Delaware, at Winterthur? There’s actually a good reason.

After JFK’s presidential election, Jackie Kennedy started making plans for the White House’s restoration, and visited Winterthur for inspiration, and hoped to get some of du Pont’s antique furniture on loan. During her visit, Director Charles Montgomery recommended creating a committee of informed and connected people who would work together to curate antique furnishings for the White House. Their discussion lead to the creation of the Fine Arts Committee, and H.F. du Pont served as chairman, as he was considered the most qualified authority on American historical decoration at the time. The three main principles influencing the White House Restoration became not limiting the style of the White House to one time period, that the White House should reflect the different administrations that had passed through, and that the library played an integral symbolic and functional role. As a result, Jackie Kennedy, with the expertise and supervision of the Fine Arts Committee and H.F. du Pont, worked to develop the distinct character of the White House, work later continued by Nancy Reagan.

T is for Tar

1957.1257 – Mezzotint

The Bostonians Paying the Excise-Man, or Tarring & Feathering  

An American classic.

An American classic.

The first time I caught a glimpse of this Mezzotint on Winterthur’s walls, I gasped. I grew up seeing this picture in every U.S. History textbook’s section on the American Revolution, and here this piece was, hanging unsuspectingly on the sixth floor! And now, ladies and gentlemen, I finally have more details:

This piece was made in 1774 by Mezzotinter Philip Dawe in London, England, and published by Robert Sayer and John Bennett. According to the database’s Notes section, the tarred and feathered man is presumably Boston customs commissioner John Malcom, who was forced to drink large quantities of tea as torture on his way to the gallows in 1774.

P is for Potato

2017.0012.001 – Flask

(This one is a personal favorite)

Potato flask!

Potato flask!

From Staffordshire in the United Kingdom, this “pocket bottle” is one of many lead-glazed Earthenware pieces recently acquired as part of the Tananbaum Collection – all of which are ceramics with the same canary yellow color.  (Other fun pieces from the Tananbaum Collection include two elaborate pipes shaped like snakes, and a very jaundiced-looking bust of John Milton).

Currently, there’s not much extra information on the potato flask, except speculation it could have been associated with vodka.

Snake pipe 2017.0012.007

Snake pipe 2017.0012.007

Mr. Milton himself (2017.0012.010)

Mr. Milton himself (2017.0012.010)


  1. aswhitlock says:

    I absolutely love how you formatted this post- It is such a creative way to present artifacts and their history. Do you happen to know how the Winterthur acquired the Mezzotint? As a history major, I find the piece to particularly interesting and am curious to know how the Winterthur came across it.

    Abby Whitlock

  2. Hi Abby, thanks for your question! I definitely appreciated the excuse to do some more digging into the history of the print at Winterthur. The database record shows the Mezzotint was accessioned by Winterthur at the bequest of Winterthur’s founder, HF du Pont. HF collected American made and used decorative arts throughout his life, and while some were part of the museum before his death in 1961, he kept a significant personal collection that was then absorbed by the museum when he died.
    I also took a look in the Object File the Registration Office has the mezzotint, and found correspondence between HF and dealers indicating he decided to purchase the print through them in January of 1944.
    Throughout the years, Winterthur has received many requests for reproduction rights to the image, mainly for US History textbooks. But Winterthur’s print is one of several – a quick Google search revealed that the British Museum and the Library of Congress each have one as well.
    Hope this helps some!
    Anna South

  3. darrienspitz says:

    You clearly have an aptitude for journalism as your formatting and intriguing writing drew me in! Every art/historic piece you are describing is fascinating and wildly different. I’m wondering what your main role is at the Winterthur, and how you believe learning about these pieces is significant. Do you see more importance in the art or the historical significance?

    I am also fascinated by the mezzotint, as I spent almost a year living in Boston. I wonder, was this piece on the side of Britain or side of the Bostonian? The Englishmen’s faces look cruel, though I wonder if Britain supported such treatment.