In the Memory House recalls what American society has forgottenthe land, its people, and its ideals. By examining what we choose to remember, this important book reveals how progress has created absences in our landscapes and in our lives.
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About the Author
Howard Mansfield writes about architecture and American history. He is the author of Cosmopolis: Yesterday's Cities of the Future. He has written for national publications including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, American Heritage and Historic Preservation. He lives in Hancock, New Hampshire.
Read an Excerpt
In the Memory House
By Howard Mansfield
Fulcrum PublishingCopyright © 1993 Howard Mansfield
All rights reserved.
IN THE MEMORY HOUSE
In Brownington, Vermont, there is a small bottle. The bottle is green, maybe four inches long, and has a label. In fading ink it says, "This barley was grown in 1883 and given by Mrs. Selden Gray." The bottle is filled with barley.
* * *
Brownington is a village a dozen miles from the Canadian border, home to 708 souls and the Old Stone House Museum. You can't miss the museum; it is housed in a four-story granite building that was once part of an academy run by Alexander Twilight, said to be the first black to earn a degree from an American college, Middlebury, back in 1823. When the oxen were done hauling the granite slabs for the great dormitory in 1836, the building must have seemed huge. Today it still seems somewhat misplaced, a roaming academic building far from the herd in Dartmouth or Middlebury.
The guidebook says, "The collections are rural and vernacular in scope" (i.e., a mongrel collection) "with many fine examples of local folk art and folk technology" (i.e., bad paintings and old tools, once coveted, now merely curious). In short, the next blockbuster Metropolitan Museum of Art show — tickets by Ticketron, T-shirts, hoopla — will not be stopping in Brownington. But when the museum is open, the director, Reed Cherington, or one of the volunteers will kindly show you through, and in this age of mass tourism, they are ready to accommodate groups of up to forty people.
From the guidebook you wouldn't guess what a feast awaits. There are some five thousand objects in twenty-three rooms, with each of ten rooms devoted to one town in the county. There is "folk technology": the Yankee Flytrap, which, if I understand it, has a rotating gooey wheel to catch flies and a blade to scrape them off into a cage. (Okay, so the world never beat a path to the door of this Brownington inventor.) There are eighteenth-century furniture, needlepoint samplers, children's toys, bells, pitchforks and light bulbs — a three-shelf history of the light bulb, complete with a portrait of Edison himself. There are those unsettling nineteenth-century portraits of children by itinerant painters. The artists would paint a series of bodies first, hit the road, and then do the head in a sitting. The heads and bodies are always a bad fit, making the children seem dwarfish. There is Alexander Twilight's pony-skin-covered wooden trunk with his initials in brass tacks, and his desk and Bible as well. And there is someone's rock collection, gathered on a brave westward trek in the 1880s. There is always a rock collection. Before Kodak and souvenir ashtrays, rocks were what people brought home. They were the proof of the pilgrimage, the moon rocks of their day, and, once donated to the town, part of the "advancement of knowledge for mankind."
The Orleans County Historical Society runs the Old Stone House Museum. This is a populist museum in a way that would set any curator's teeth on edge. For sixty years people have been donating what they thought should be here. Sometimes these treasured objects were on their way to the dump when their owner hesitated, thought, "Oh what the heck, I've got a few minutes before the ball game," and left it to the ages instead. Sometimes a rare eighteenth-century baby cradle is donated and sometimes a bottle filled with barley grain. That bottle is easily overshadowed by the other 4,999 objects in the collection, but it well explains the whole museum.
* * *
"This barley was grown in 1883 and given by Mrs. Selden Gray." Why this? Why leave a bottle of grain in the perpetual care of neighbors and their descendants? Who would want to see it? It's not even a rock collection, not a stuffed owl or a wedding dress or a three-shelf history of the light bulb.
Here's my guess: To Mrs. Selden Gray it was the story of 1883 in a bottle: sowing the seed, the rainy spring, the dry summer (or the dry spring and the rainy summer), the blight that threatened, the sickness and health that came along that summer, the day they put aside their work to see the traveling carnival, the harvest, the harvest supper, the meals made from the barley, the animals fed, the barley bartered or sold to neighbors. A harvest corked for one hundred years, a low-tech time capsule. This was life, she was saying.
At least, that is what I presume. Maybe it was just some barley she had around the house. You can read too much into these things. The historical record is distorted by the nasty fact that surviving artifacts are unrepresentative. The Wedding Dress Problem, preservationists sometimes call it. Historical societies and house museums have many wedding dresses, but who saved the workday clothes? Few survive. The same with the houses saved; there are many mansions but few workingman's cottages. You can also call it the Whorehouse Embarrassment: They were there of course, but it's not the kind of thing that makes for a good field trip for Mrs. Wilder's fourth-grade social studies class. Nor would the local garden club want to have their Easter flower show in such a place. The Fort Smith Heritage Foundation in Arkansas is bravely facing these problems: They saved "Miss Laura's House." "Some very prominent people frequented Miss Laura's house," say the restorers.
Still, unless Mrs. Gray was working up to a patent for a bottled barley product, planning to market a high-fiber drink, I think she was very proud of that 1883 harvest.
* * *
The Old Stone House Museum is similar to hundreds of little museums throughout New England. Except that the Stone House, with its twenty-three rooms, is something of a mega-museum, a Metropolitan, compared with the others. Almost every town has one, run usually by the historical society. Each is in a house like any other on Main Street, a house inhabited only by artifacts and documents, a house of history, a house of memory.
What is saved and what is discarded, who is remembered and why — all that is significant. Who may enter the memory house is determined by decree and chance and the shared illusions of any society — the "false certainties," as historian Daniel J. Boorstin has called them.
This is what we remember, what we shepherd toward the next generation.
* * *
The New Ipswich Historical Society in New Hampshire is one of my favorite museums in the world. It is a close second to the British Museum in London. New Ipswich's holdings can't compare in size. The British Museum covers more than thirteen acres and contains the plunder of the Empire, the Elgin marbles off the Parthenon, medieval illuminated manuscripts and, it seems, almost every Egyptian artifact short of the Pyramids. When I am in London, it is my greatest pleasure just to walk in and visit a favorite item: the page from Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures Under Ground in his hand, or the crowning procession of man and horse from the Parthenon. Visiting a few objects daily, you come to live with them and think about them in a way that is lost in a prolonged, forced cultural march through the ages, dragging through the Assyrians, praying for a bench in the Etruscans, looking at Michelangelos and Turners and thinking only of throbbing feet and a pint of bitter.
The New Ipswich museum is in a one-room schoolhouse open only a few hours each summer (there is no heat for the winter, and the curator is in Massachusetts), and since New Ipswich never ruled the waves, the Egyptian collection is lacking. But for a sublime jumble shop of American history, it can't be beat.
The museum is a wonderful musty-cool when you enter; the sweet smell of decay, history hurrying toward dust. Sitting on the floor, in a shoal of dust, is the marble bust of some old Appleton, once the leading family, whose name graced the academy, the mill, and the inn; now off the pedestal, this Appleton, when viewed from above, with handwritten label tottering on his scalp, seems a bit pompous and quite a bit dirty. There is a big, dark oil portrait of an imposing figure. It once hung in the town hall, but now time has caught up with and dethroned the powerful: "A member of the Gibson family" is all the label says. History is like that; you're gone but a hundred, a hundred and fifty years, and someone takes you off your pedestal, or they leave your name off your portrait.
All around the room are items that look like they were dropped off yesterday, like the Civil War rations sitting on a glass shelf:
"Hard Bread or Hard Tack served to John Barnett, 3rd Reg. M.V.M. Dec. 16 1862.
"This was part of a Five-days rations served to each man. Mr. Barnett carried this bread 90 miles, from Goldsboro to Newberne. At this place a friend of his called to see him and he sent some of it home to the north by this man to give his friends an idea of army food.
"Mr. Barnett gave this to the historical society May 18, 1916."
And here it is — a three-inch-square, waffle-like cracker looking as inedible as the day it was baked 130 years ago. (Next to it, a small bug, having tasted of history, lies dead.)
Many of the labels are themselves as old as the century, ink now light brown in proper cursive script. The newer ones are in fading typescript. Unlike its fellow institution, the British Museum, New Ipswich does not hide the pitched debates about authenticity and chronology. Crossouts and emendations of dates and names are in full view of the public. Under a coffee pot, "pewter" is crossed out, "Britannia" is penciled in. On a photo of the Congregational Church burning, "1903" is crossed out for "July 15, 1902." This is as it should be. We are always rewriting the past.
On some matters of authenticity, The New Ipswich (the regal name it should have) maintains a cagey New England silence: "Can't say as 't is, can't say as 't isn't." For example: "Remains of a drum carried in the Revolution. Not known if used as such by Silas Davis or not, but handed down in the Davis Family and given to the historical society by his great grandson. ..." The phrase "Not known if used as such" seems to say, "The family believes this was carried in the Revolution, and we thank them for the gift." This might be another "Wedding Dress" distortion. People believed that their great-great dropped his plow to pick up a — what? — a drum to go face the Redcoats. So many drums have likely been given to historical societies that you could well think the Revolution was a musical engagement, with a few extra muskets in the percussion section.
The curator tells me that when she was growing up, she thought the museum was old-fashioned. She was going to change it, make a proper modern show of things. She went off to college, came back to New Ipswich for summers, and — mercifully she never changed it.
We stand looking at the bottom shelf of a glass display case. There, about ankle level, is a rock collection. Minerals from Nevada, says the label, given to the library in 1901. "We should really do something about that," she says.
The strength of The New Ipswich is its patriotic artifacts. In a glass case (near an "ancient snuff box" and an "ivory back scratcher") are the folded pages of the sermon New Ipswich's Parson Stephen Farrar gave on learning of the death of George Washington. It begins in sure hand: "Know ye not that there is a prince and a great man fallen this day in Israel?" And next to it in the case is "ivy from the tomb of Washington, Oct. 7, 1903" and bark from the Washington Elm, taken in 1923. Across the room is a walking staff made from a branch of the Washington Elm. In another case is a black walnut gathered from the grounds of Mount Vernon.
On a shelf of hats is a "military hat worn by Supply Wilson in the War of 1812." One shelf above the Nevada mineral display is a clump of once-golden braid: "This tassel formed a part of the decorations of the funeral car which carried the remains of the late Abraham Lincoln from Washington to Springfield, April 1865."
In the glass case holding the Washington sermon also resides what is left of the Congregational Church's bell. The bell was made by Paul Revere and brought to New Ipswich, May 2, 1815. It weighed 1,116 pounds. The church was struck by lightning in 1902, and a half-ton bell vanished. There is a spindly, lava-like fragment in the case.
These are relics in the true sense, holy relics, pieces of the true cross of patriotism. Part of the Washington Elm, fringe from the funeral car of Lincoln. Here we see a town mourning Washington, grasping something that was near the late Abraham Lincoln. These little museums are our holy reliquaries.
But wait. Does a piece of bark taken in 1923 from a tree Washington may have stood under really tell us anything? Does some faded braid bring us closer to Lincoln? We could just as well be looking at bark taken from a tree outside and braided epaulettes from a Gilbert and Sullivan comic opera. Relics require faith, but history is supposed to be verifiable, true, each event as solid as granite.
If a drum may have never made it to the Revolution, what are we to make of the lesser artifacts, the remnants of daily life: the policeman's rattle, the button collection, the seashell collection, a cigar cutter, a butter churn, old pew cushions from the Fourth Congregational Church, hand-wrought nails, the plates for the one-dollar and five-dollar bills of the New Ipswich Bank. The 1848 Constitution and Bylaws of the Souhegan Division #16, Sons of Temperance. The police regulations from 1904 ("No person shall make any brawls or tumults. ... No person shall use any juggling or unlawful games. ... No person shall within the compact part of town, fire or discharge a cannon").
History is a flea market, a jumble shop. What comes down to us from the past? A slice of hardtack, a shard of bell, a few grains of barley. A jumble, suspended in a now-invisible web of family and circumstance, sin and sacrifice.
Of all the objects that ever were, we have these. Of all the Sundays that were, we have a scrap of bell, a few pew cushions, and a chart showing where the families sat.
* * *
A flea market: In Ashfield, Massachusetts, the library was faced with a reduced budget. "Somebody said we could sell those old prints over there in the corner," said one of the library's trustees, who fortunately was a history professor. "I walked over and looked at one and it wasn't a print, it was a document and I looked down at the bottom and there was Abraham Lincoln's signature, which was faded a different color from the printed material." The library had one of forty-eight copies of the Emancipation Proclamation that Lincoln had signed in 1864.
* * *
In Stoddard, New Hampshire, at the historical society is Zilpha Gould's bread shovel and Dr. Robinson's fire shovel, an old stirrup found at Sumner Knight's house and "pieces of an old kettle found in old cellar hole" and "gloves worn by Minnie M. Barrett. Stoddard N.H., October 29, 1863" (donated by her daughter) and hats and shoes and dresses and hoes and spoons and pieces of Stoddard glass. And just why?
There is a peculiar quality of New England antiquarianism: the ancestor worship, the highly personal nature of the history. Zilpha Gould's bread shovel and someone else's dress and town histories that go house-by-house around the village. This is social history long before the academy had thought to study everyday life.
But the question remains: why herd this collection of objects, gathered by chance and by pride, and give it its own house on Main Street, a house just for memory?
Why not a museum dedicated to just one day of life: August 3, 1854, in Stoddard or July 22, 1973, in Peterborough? And everything, absolutely everything, from that day would be there: all newspapers, broadcasts, advertising, photos of everything that stood on the shelves in stores and pantries and closets; records of everything bought and sold, and everything taken to the dump. Voluntary transcripts — sealed for a generation — of everything said in town that day over dinner, over the fence, over the phone. Copies of all letters written that day, all diaries. And a grand list — to be sealed for two generations: "On this day we do covet": and there would follow thousands of lines of entries of envy and greed, of neighbors' jobs and neighbors' houses. There can be lists for giving thanks and joy, but they will be short lists when, eighty years on, they are opened on Old Home Day and read with the lists of guilt and sorrow, and the longest list, for the injustices, real and perceived, done to the town's residents: "Give us this day our daily grudge."
Or why not just take a flea market or a yard sale and enshrine it in the museum? This is what people were selling, secondhand, in 1969. It would speak volumes, as would a room set aside for a dump display. I am thinking here of a great panoramic picture, like those they used to paint to depict Civil War battles, encircling a large room. Imagine the grandeur of it — a mountain of trash, the cast-off toasters and blenders and refrigerators of 1954 or 1978. In just a few years people will stand at the panorama, point out different objects and laugh at such waste. (They will no doubt be cleaning up after us, as ever more lethal chemical soups are discovered bubbling away at these dumps, our true historical markers.)
Excerpted from In the Memory House by Howard Mansfield. Copyright © 1993 Howard Mansfield. Excerpted by permission of Fulcrum Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
2. Modern Times: A Prologue,
3. Part I: In the Memory House,
4. Part II: Choosing Our Ancestors,
5. Part III: Us & Them and Them & Us,
6. Part IV: Absences,
7. Modern Times: An Epilogue,
What People are Saying About This
Anyone interested in small town America should read In the Memory House....it is a lucid, unsentimental, consistently interesting book.
How often do we see ourselves described so beautifully? So movingly? So accurately? In the Memory House is so good it gives you the shivers.