On Display: Marking the Occasion

Marking the Occasion:
Dutch Silver Spoons from the Collection of George Way and Jonathan Z. Friedman

DuBois Fort Visitor Center, 81 Huguenot Street
October 1 – December 18, 2016

hhs-dutch-spoon-2Historic Huguenot Street celebrates the abiding influence of the Dutch New Netherland colony in the Hudson Valley with Marking the Occasion, an exhibit centering around 17th- and 18th-century Dutch silver spoons from the collections of Jonathan Z. Friedman and George Way. The catalogue of these ornate and fascinating objects and accompanying remarks were prepared by Kevin Tierney, Silver Consultant for Sotheby’s.

When the French Huguenots who founded New Paltz first arrived in what was then New Netherland, they initially settled in the Dutch town of Wiltwijck (today’s Kingston) in the 1660s and 1670s. The Dutch influence on the Huguenot settlers is apparent in the architecture of the stone houses on Huguenot Street, as well as in its collections of artifacts, recipes, legal documents, and furniture.

Individual spoons became plentiful in Holland in the 17th century and later. They were given as presents to mark births and marriages, but also death and special events. For each occasion, appropriate finials were chosen, with favorites including Plenty or Bounty (a female figure holding a bouquet and frond), Charity (with its family symbolism of mother and children), Hope (a female figure with an anchor), William and Mary (suggesting patriotism), and Apostles (chosen for a new child’s name). The finials were cast from molds which were used for years. Spoons fashioned in the towns of Friesland had a similar range of finials, but often had openwork stems frequently decorated with cherub heads. The shape of the bowls moved from fig shape to egg shape, the latter resembling the bowls of tablespoons.

The exhibit is enhanced by the inclusion of comparative examples of spoons of varying types from England, America, and elsewhere, as well as carved wooden spoon racks and four period Dutch paintings. A selection of Delft pieces from the collections of Mary Etta Schneider and Sanford Levy further enrich the display.

Marking the Occasion: Dutch Silver Spoons from the Collection of George Way and Jonathan Z. Friedman will be on display in the DuBois Fort from October 1 through December 18 during regular open hours. The exhibit is free and open to the public.

Documenting Slavery in New Paltz

Hello, my name is Joseph Rochez and I am a student of SUNY New Paltz studying History and minoring in Political Science. As a student of Afro-Latino descent, I believe it is essential to understand American history through the lives of those that are unrepresented. The people that have dealt with the most oppression and under-representation throughout American history have been African Americans. From being property to fighting against various inequalities in today’s modern age, black people have been through various stages of tribulations that don’t seem to end. One thing that is never really talked about in American history is the fact that slavery was prevalent in the north as well.

Usually when one thinks of slavery, the southern states tend to be synonymous with the term, but there is astonishing proof that slavery prevailed in the north up until the first couple decades into the 19th century. This record from 1810 shows that there were bounty hunters who were looking for runaway slaves in the Ulster County area, which could have very well been runaway slaves from the town of New Paltz. This letter stated that the reward for the capture of a slave was at $14 a day of travel under 60 miles and $16 a day for travel over 60 miles from home. The bounty hunter would end up getting a sum of $30 dollars, which doesn’t seem a lot in today’s standards but, was worth a lot two centuries ago. This is the document that shows the advertisement of slave capturing:

Society of Negroes Unsettled

Society of Negroes Unsettled Signatures

The investment in capturing and maintaining the enslaved also meant that the institution was very important to the development of New Paltz as it contributed to the local economy as well as provide a labor force for infrastructure. There was also a society of slave owners dedicated to keeping slaves from running away and escaping known as ‘The Society of Negroes Unsettled’. In fact, the institution of slavery itself is what allowed the town of New Paltz to be sufficient and stable as the population in the town was generally very small for the most part of the first two centuries.

Because the institution was important to the well being of the town, there was also incentive to keep things the way they always were. A main precaution that was taken from the slave owners in New Paltz was making sure that there were no uprisings of Africans, which was a pretty common fear amongst whites living in the Hudson Valley. One thing that made uprisings pretty uncommon in the north is the way the system is practiced. Unlike southern plantation owners, households rarely owned more than four Africans, which contrary to popular belief made it a more dehumanizing practice in the north than the south. This made it almost certain that families were separated following purchase. In fact, life was probably boring and lonely as slaves could not interact with slaves from other households and worked close to the slave master. Africans were integrated into the white community, with a status that is inferior and worth less than a poor white peasant. The living conditions for enslaved Africans were unbearable. Owners often kept Africans in the basement of homes or even barns. Ceilings were short and the basement was often cold, wet and dusty. The Bevier-Elting House on Huguenot Street is a prime example of what conditions were like during the 19th century. One could imagine the back problems that Africans would have developed later in life due to having been subjected to such conditions for so long. The term “slave” is an unjust one and no human being should ever have to be looked at as property. However, slavery is part of the history of New Paltz as there is documentation and evidence of this system being in place. It is imperative that the inhabitants of this town acknowledge that slavery existed and embrace the role of Africans in the development of the town of New Paltz and Ulster county area.

Members of the Slave Dwelling Project visited Historic Huguenot Street, and along with board members, staff, and SUNY New Paltz students, slept in the cellars of the Bevier-Elting House and the Abraham Hasbrouck House. The Slave Dwelling Project is a non-profit that aims to preserve extant slave dwellings by bringing people together to education, collaborate and organize resources to save these important pieces of American history. Along with this event, Historic Huguenot Street has put together an exhibit highlighting the documents and objects in the permanent collection that tell the story of Hudson Valley slavery. This document is among others like it, such as wills, estate inventories, other agreements, as well as a slave collar. Slavery in New Paltz is open to the public in the DuBois Fort until September 25. For more information about the Slave Dwelling Project, visit their website www.slavedwellingproject.org.

Sources:

Roth, Eric. “‘The Society of Negros Unsettled’: a history of slavery in New Paltz, NY.” The Free Library. Afro-Americans in New York Life and History: Buffalo, NY, 1 January 2003. Web. 7 September 2016.

Historic Huguenot Street. “The Missing Chapter: Untold Stories of the African American Presence in the Mid-Hudson Valley.” Hudson River Valley Heritage. Southeastern New York Library Resources Council: Highland, NY. Web. 7 September 2016.

On Display: Slavery in New Paltz

Slavery in New Paltz
From the HHS Permanent Collection & Archives
DuBois Fort Visitor Center, 81 Huguenot Street
September 9 – 25, 2016

This exhibit centers around wills and other documents dating from the late 17th century through the early 19th century from the Historic Huguenot Street Archives, as well as a late 18th century slave collar from the HHS Permanent Collection. A highlight of the display is the account book of John Hasbrouck that records his work as a freeman, as well as the wages and goods he received as payment between 1830 and 1839.

John Hasbrouck's Account Book

The first records of slave acquisition by the French Huguenot founders of New Paltz began in 1674 with the purchase of two enslaved people in Kingston. The Huguenot families who settled New Paltz are known to have enslaved Africans, as evidenced by the documents on display. Contrary to the common misconception that slavery was practiced in the U.S. only in the South, Northern states were also dependent on enslaved African labor in the 17th and 18th centuries to build their homes and communities, to work their farms, and to serve as domestic servants and skilled artisans. Slavery was practiced in what is now New York as early as 1626 by the Dutch and was perpetuated by the British through the 18th century. Even after the American Revolution, slavery was not legally abolished in New York State until 1827.

A descendant of Huguenot Street, Mary Etta Schneider, has said, “It is important to acknowledge the paradox inherent to this community’s use of enslaved African labor. My ancestors fled France for religious and political freedom. Before leaving France they saw their own families tortured, enslaved, and killed. Yet these emigrants came to the New World and, for their own personal gain, forced other human beings to labor against their will.” By exploring the narrative of Northern slavery through tours, programs, and exhibits such as this, Historic Huguenot Street hopes to reveal the true story of the street, not just from the perspective of slave owners, but from the perspective of those enslaved who also helped build our community.

E. Hardenbergh Slave Collar

Cameos: A Long History

By Meredith Salton

This week’s object is a beautiful gold ring with a tiger’s eye cameo of a man. The art of cameos are a European tradition that became popular in the American colonies. The trend has been fading in and out of history for as long as two thousand years.  A cameo is a relief image raised higher than its background and carved from one material.

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Our cameo is mysterious. While we do not know its provenance, we can make assessments based on the style. There is a Roman style man in a tiger’s eye stone, a semi-precious stone. Most times, cameos were carved into shell. Tiger’s eye is more difficult to carve into than shell, and may have taken more time and effort. While the style is Roman, this ring is likely from the 19th century.

The tradition of cameo carving has a long history in Europe. It started in Ancient Greece and Rome where they carved gods and goddess along with themes from mythology, beautiful women and biblical events. Cameos became popular again during the Renaissance. Pope Paul II was an avid cameo collector. Later, Queen Victoria also collected cameos. Cameos saw high popularity with Victorian women. In the early 19th century, many cameos of simple Roman women were created. Later, upper class women traveled Europe and collected these. The wealthy women then requested the creation of cameos that looked more like them- thinner neck, hair up, and wearing jewelry. The United States boasted fine quality cameos with Louis Comfort Tiffany’s rise during the Art Nouveau period in the early 1900’s. Though America was producing cameos, many were imported from Italy. Finer cameos were made from materials such as stone, shell, coral, Gutta-percha, bog oak, ivory, lava, or mother-of-pearl. Costume cameo jewelry was often glass or later, plastic.

Sources:

Rush, Anne Kent. “Classic Cameos and Incomparable Intaglios – Yesterday and Today.” Jules and Gem Books, 2000. Extasia. Web. 25 August 2016.

Azzarito, Amy. “Past & Present: Cameos + DIY Projects and Cocktail Recipe.” Design*Sponge, 14 September 2010. Web. 25 August 2016.

Miller, Anna M. “Cameos Old & New.” Woodstock, VE: GemStone Press, 1998. The Cameo Collection. Web. 25 August 2016.

A Cast Iron Stove

By Ciara Bohan

Hi everyone! This week’s object is a late 18th-early 19th century cast iron stove, a tool used to optimize heating during times with no electricity. This later stove structure evolved from the jamb stove. This simply made cast iron stove heated thousands of Europeans homes for hundreds of years, especially in Northern Europe. Once the European immigrants came to the United States, they brought jamb stoves to use as a main source of heating other than the fireplace.

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Dating back to the 1600’s, the jamb stove was first seen in Germany and later became popular in the Netherlands, Sweden, and England. Also referred to as 5-plated stoves, wall stoves, and German stoves, these cast iron stoves were specifically used for heating purposes. Throughout most of the 19th century, German houses were designed to be extremely similar. Almost every German house was built with a fireplace for the purpose of cooking food and for warmth. Directly behind the kitchen was a “stove room” which is where the jamb stove was located. The jamb stove had to be placed behind the fireplace so the smoke would rise out of the chimney. It became a key feature of a German household, and made it easy for settlers to identify each other’s ancestry by looking in their homes. Since New Paltz and much of the Hudson Valley was settled by the Dutch, jamb stoves were brought over from the Netherlands and were useful through the cold winters.

Stoveplate-Diagram

The structure and design of the stoves were fairly simple. The stoves were built with five sides and had an open back which attached to the fireplace. The plates would be a square 2 feet by 2 feet, and in total could weight up to 450 pounds. By the mid 1700’s the plates traditionally were elegantly decorated in low relief detail on the outer sides. Popular designs included floral and landscape motifs. These stoves were manufactured up until about 1794. Although jamb stoves changed the domestic lives of many people, they eventually became outdated. New inventions came out such as the “6-plate stove” or the “9-plated stove”, which were more efficient. These appliances included small ovens for cooking. The decorations on the stoves varied as styles in furniture did. Before the Revolution, Rococo, and Chippendale styles were added onto stoves, and after the war, creators of these stoves caught onto Federal motifs. Historic Huguenot Street’s permanent collection holds several examples of later cast iron stoves. This particular stove stands on four feet, and two doors that open in front in order to add hot coals for heating and cooking. The elaborately decorated top swivels off to reveal an opening for venting. The cover has an urn shaped finial on top.

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Sources:

Visit Our Newest Exhibit: The Stove Plates of Rock Hill Farm.” Conococheague Institute Blog. Mercersburg, PA: The Conococheague Institute, 5 February 2013. Web. 12 August 2016.

Wood, Robert. “The Historian: The Evolution of the Cooke Stove, Part I.” The Berks-Mont News. Pottstown, PA: Berksmont News, 21 March 2013. Web. 12 August 2016.

Harris, Howell. “A Collection of Stoves from American Museums, I: Plate Stoves.” A Stove Less Ordinary. Durham, England: A Stove Less Ordinary, 22 October 2013.  Web. 12 August  2016.

Coded Quilts and the Underground Railroad

By Madison Petrella

quiltThis week we’re taking a look at “Freedom quilts.” Quilts were often created to send a message, each uniquely embroidered to tell a story. Before and during the Civil War, people aiding runaway slaves in the Underground Railroad used quilt patterns to help.

Quilt patterns pointed to the safest route to take to freedom. Runaway slaves were taught the symbolism behind each pattern. Using quilts was a rather ingenious idea as the sight of one hanging out to dry was so common a sight it was easily overlooked.1 It is a general consensus among historians that there were ten different patterns. “Monkey Wrench” told slaves to start preparing the tools they would need for a long journey, whether these be physical, mental, or spiritual ones, and “Wagon Wheel” indicated that their journey was about to begin. If a slave saw the “Bear’s Paw” pattern, then they knew they were supposed to head towards the mountains and follow the tracks of the bears, which would lead them to water and food. “Crossroads” directed slaves towards Cleveland, Ohio. “Log Cabin” let those know there was a safe house nearby. Likewise, “Shoofly” directed a people towards a nearby guide. If a runaway saw the “Bowtie” symbol, they needed to disguise themselves with new clothing. Slaves knew not to take a direct route if they saw the “Drunkard’s Path” and to follow the North Star if they saw the “Star.” The last design is the “Flying Geese” where slaves were directed to follow a goose migration pattern.

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The HHS Permanent Collection holds several quilts with these patterns. The quilt pictured was donated in 1990 by Mr. Kenneth E. Hasbrouck as part of the Estate of Ruth Laws Lauder. It is believed to have been hand sewn by Jane Crispell around 1850 and has no provenance associated with the Underground Railroad. However, it is an example of what could be considered a Freedom quilt with the “Flying Geese” design.

The idea of coded quilts became popular due to a 1999 book entitled Hidden in Plain View: A Secret Story of Quilts and the Underground Railroad, published by historian Jacqueline Tobin and scholar Raymond Dobard. The book is the oral testimony of a South Carolina quilt vendor named Ozella McDaniel Williams who recounted a song to Tobin and Dobard over a period of three years. The song works as a mnemonic to aid slaves in remembering the meanings of various symbols. Williams claimed that this song and the accompanying story of quilts used as signals to aid runaways was one passed down within her family for generations, her ancestors having been slaves on a southern plantation.

Since its publication, Hidden in Plain View has met significant controversy among historians, particularly those specializing in quilts and the Underground Railroad. The biggest issues have been the lack of any quilts that have survived to the present and the lack of any mention of the quilts from other sources. Perhaps the most vocal opponent of the theory of coded quilts is Giles R. Wright, who was a historian and director of the Afro-American History Program at the New Jersey Historical Commission. He pointed to the mention of quilt codes being absent in both the 19th century slave narratives and the oral testimonies of former slaves given in the 1930s.2 Tobin later said that her claims were taken out of context. She says she and Dobard made it clear that they were recounting Williams’ story and the oral history of her family and of one planation in the south;3 however, critics point out that they allege that these quilts were used by members of the Underground Railroad, for which no corroborating evidence has been found.

Today, the general consensus among historians is that Freedom quilts are a myth due to the lack of any written evidence of the contrary. So, were quilts sewn with specific patterns to relay delicate messages to runaway slaves? Probably not, as there is more evidence to argue that Freedom quilts are part of an American folklore. The idea of quilts created to relay information hasn’t died out in the American imagination. On the contrary, it has been added to the long list of heroic stories forever associated with the Civil War and the Underground Railroad.

Myths in history are equally important as fact. Some claim that mythologized stories are a detriment because they disrupt the preservation of history, but I maintain that sometimes it’s the heroic myths that are remembered best because they inspire us to do more than we think we’re capable of. We take them to heart and remember them for the future.

Sources:

1 “Underground Railroad Quilt Code.” Owen Sound. Ontario: Owen Sound City Hall. Web. 9 August 2016.

Ives, Sarah. “Did Quilts Hold Codes to the Underground Railroad?” National Geographic News. New York: National Geography Society, 5 February 2004. Web. 9 August 2016.

3 Cole, Diane. “Were Quilts Used as Underground Railroad Maps?” U.S. News & World Report. U.S. News & World Report, L.P., 24 June 2007. Web. 9 August 2016.

A Child’s Ciphering Book

By Meredith Salton

Hi, it’s Meredith! The object of the week this week is a ciphering book that belonged to Philip Hasbrouck in 1793. Ciphering books held mathematical definitions as well as arithmetic exercises and problems. Recently donated to Huguenot Street, this book gives a clear view into the learning habits of the everyday child in New Paltz in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Philip Hasbrouck was born on October 22, 1783, to Joseph Hasbrouck and Elizabeth Bevier. He probably owned this book when he was 10 years old. The book contains examples of multiplication problems, as well as other simple exercises. HHS holds a number of ciphering books in the permanent collection that were owned by descendants of New Paltz patentees. These books tell us the story of what communities valued and taught their children.

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Many ciphering books from New Paltz and the surrounding area that survive today contain religious rhetoric. There are also examples of application problems that revolved around commerce and business within the books. Though many ciphering books survived from the time, this one contains charming and interesting doodles probably drawn by Philip during his lessons. Most of them are of a man with a horse and pipe. Philip ends the book with a poem that indicates how crucial these personal ciphering books were to learning:  “Heal not this Book my Honest friend/ For fear the Gallows will be your end/ Steal not this book for fear of shame/ For in it stands the owners name/ If it loose and you it find/ Return it home for it is mine”.

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The New Paltz educational system was a fuse of Dutch and French Huguenots and focused on “three R’s”: reading, writing and some ‘rithmetic. Children would practice their handwriting by copying portions of the bible. They would do this continuously until their handwriting was perfect, as shown in the handwriting of this ciphering book. Education methods did not differ between boys and girls, because it was necessary for everyone to be able to read the bible. Along with the basics, children were taught trades to prepare them to support themselves. For example, young girls were often taught to weave cloth, and ended their schooling by their mid-teens to continue textile working. Ciphering books with doodles as sweet as Philip’s remind us that although methods and values may change, the fun mind of a child remains the same.

Sources:

Ciphering Books.” Library Muse: Inspiring Ideas from the Dartmouth College Library.  Hanover, New Hampshire: Dartmouth College Library, November 14, 2014. Web. 4 August 2016.

Starr, Linda. “Back in the Day: Lessons from Colonial Classrooms.” Education World. Colchester, CT: Education World, 2010. Web. 4 August 2016.

Shuster, Caitlin. “Huguenot Education in Colonial America.” Web. 4 August 2016.

On Display: “Powder Horns: An Early American Art Form”

Powder Horns:
An Early American Art Form
From the HHS Permanent Collection
DuBois Fort Visitor Center, 81 Huguenot Street
August 9 – September 25, 2016

Throughout the early wars in America, powder horns were a close companion to colonial weapons such as the musket, fowler, flintlock rifle, and pistol. Powder horns were portable containers used primarily for gunpowder and made out of large animal horns, commonly that of cows. If made correctly, the tool was airtight, waterproof, and spark-proof, with caps on both ends removed to funnel powder into the gun. The powder horn was introduced to America from Europe, where they were developed alongside gunpowder. Horns were easily and cheaply obtained.

1985223001-5Although they served a vital utilitarian purpose on the battlefield, powder horns also functioned as unique works of art. European powder horns were unembellished, while American horns were engraved with images, regimental mottos, references to military campaigns, or maps.  The technique became known as scrimshaw; a form of scrollwork, engraving, and carving done in bone or ivory. While some decorated powder horns were inscribed by the owner, some were made by professional engravers for sale. Many times, horns decorated by professionals had delicate lines and featured a cartouche, a carved ornamental table in which the owner would inscribe their name or initials.

Powder Horns: An Early American Art Form features seven powder horns from the HHS Permanent Collection dating to the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Both owner and professionally-made examples of scrimshaw  are featured, as well as horns with provenance to descendants of Huguenot Street patentees.

This exhibit was researched and prepared by HHS Curatorial Department interns Ciara Bohan, Madison Petrella, and Meredith Salton.

Art in the Hudson Valley: Past and Present

By Madison Petrella

In honor of the upcoming 4th annual Artists on the Street event, HHS has decided to take a look at a famous Hudson Valley artist and a member of the Huguenot Street family: D.F. Hasbrouck. Though largely unknown on a national scale, Hasbrouck is a notable figure in Hudson Valley history, famous for his wooded landscapes of the Catskill region, in particular Ulster and Delaware Counties.

Dubois Fenelon Hasbrouck (1860-1934) was born in Pine Hill, NY to Josiah Louis Hasbrouck and Mary Smith. He is also the descendent of two of the twelve original patentees: Jean Hasbrouck and Louis Dubois.1 Raised on a farm, Hasbrouck was first inspired by art when a well-known artist by the name of J.G. Brown stopped in Pine Hill during his sketching tour of the Catskills. Hasbrouck was captivated by what he witnessed Brown creating and was inspired to give it a try. He created his own work of art on a wooden board using simple farm tools and house paint. Even though the tools used were crude, when Hasbrouck showed his accomplishment to Brown the latter could plainly see the young boy’s natural talent and was impressed. Before moving on, Brown gifted to Hasbrouck a few of his art supplies and suggested he make a career out of his talent, a suggestion Hasbrouck took to heart.

Although his father believed that he should focus his attention towards his duties on the farm, Hasbrouck was determined in his passion and found support in close friends, particularly Reverend Howard Crosby who frequently rented a room on the Hasbrouck property.2 The Reverend purchased the first painting Hasbrouck completed after his encounter with J.G. Brown and remained a lifelong supporter, frequently purchasing Hasbrouck’s works and helping him to move to New York City in order to study the art scene there. Impressively, Hasbrouck was mostly self-taught with the exception of a few classes of perspective he took during a winter semester at Cooper Union in 1879.3

One of Hasbrouck’s early paintings was accepted into the 1884 fall exhibit of the National Academy of Design, a prestigious honor. Another painting was accepted again into the 1888 exhibit. This painting was entitled Winter Morning in the Catskills and was also selected to be displayed in the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago where it was purchased by prominent art collector and businessman, James W. Ellsworth.4 Additionally, Hasbrouck’s paintings were accepted to the Brooklyn Art Association, the Boston Art Club, and the Art Institute of Chicago.5 Thus began a prosperous career, but one that resulted in relative obscurity by the time of his death.

The piece I focus on today is a unique watercolor. This piece is a photo of the artist, embellished with watercolor. A brown tree with foliage surrounds a photo of Hasbrouck, sitting with a book. The watercolor dates to 1906, while the photograph was taken in 1895 by E.D. Lewis in Kingston, New York.

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D F Hasbrouck

Today, D.F. Hasbrouck is unknown to the average American and is not one of the American greats that are studied in art history classes; however, his art can be found in a number of museums across the country, including the National Gallery of Art in D.C., the San Diego Museum of Art, and right here at Historic Huguenot Street.6 In particular, the Zadock Pratt Museum curated an exhibition in 2014 in honor of Hasbrouck. Perhaps most impressively, the Zadock Pratt Museum while researching Hasbrouck’s life and works received significant help from a small community of people in Stamford, NY (where Hasbrouck spent most of his life). These residents made it a point to lovingly preserve his memory and his legacy by collecting a small but significant collection of his paintings, proving that you don’t need to be the most prominent artist of your generation for your legacy to live on long after your death and inspire a community of people.

1 Walsh, Suzanne M. The Paintings, Watercolors, and Drawings of D.F. Hasbrouck: American Impressionist (1859-1917). Prattsville, New York: Zadock Pratt Museum, 2014. Print.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 “Dubois Fenelon Hasbrouck (1860–1934).” Questroyal Fine Art LLC, New York, n.d. Web. 15 July 2016.

6 Ibid.

Climate Control: Preserving the HHS Permanent Collection

By Executive & Curatorial Assistant, Caitlin Cummings

For over two years now, the Object of the Week blog has allowed us to bring you a closer look at some of the most special pieces within our permanent collection. This week, we take the time to explain a behind the scenes aspect of collections care: climate control and preservation efforts within our historic structures! A key responsibility of any curatorial department is keeping museum artifacts safe, and with a collection as large as ours (with over 10,000 diverse objects), that can sometimes be a challenge. What many may not know is that different types of materials react differently to environmental variables, and as a result it is crucial that they are housed and handled appropriately in order to remain in excellent physical condition. Especially during these summer months, we are constantly battling heat, humidity, sunlight, and pest issues that could easily threaten the condition of historic artifacts.  Low levels of humidity can, for example, cause desiccation and embrittlement of paper, leather, and textiles, as well as the splitting/cracking of wood. High levels of humidity on the other hand can promote the corrosion of metals, and increase the chances of mold and insect activity.

Our main collection storage area on Huguenot Street is located in a 20th century building, and as a result we have little to no problems maintaining proper climate conditions in that space (with a temperature safe range of 61-68°, and a relative humidity range of 35-55%). Unfortunately stone houses, such as those that line Huguenot Street, are not equipped with insulation, HVAC systems, or any of the other structural amenities we are now reliant on to keep us comfortable at home. This means that the Huguenot houses are particularly dry and freezing in the winters, and alternatively moist and hot in the summers.  Because many pieces within the HHS permanent collection are kept on display in the stone houses to accommodate our recently re-vamped tours, we must ensure that the temperature and humidity within those environments are kept as stable as possible. If we failed to do so, our visitors would have less to enjoy as priceless pieces within the collection could begin to fall apart.

Traditional museum spaces and art galleries have long-been accustomed to measuring environmental conditions with tools called hygrothermographs. These devices are comprised of human or synthetic hair (for measuring humidity) and a bi-metallic strip (for measuring temperature), typically resembling small boxes that sit on the floor. Each sensor is attached to a separate pen which in turn moves up or down in response to a change in humidity or temperature. Because of the sensitive nature of the mechanism, the hygrothermograph requires frequent calibration and is simply not a suitable way for us to measure environmental conditions in all eight of our historic buildings. Historic Huguenot Street, like many other house museums, has instead turned to a new type of technology that provides the same exact data as hygrothermographs; digital climate data loggers. For the past decade, HHS has been evolving alongside these digital trackers, and we are pleasantly surprised to find that the technology is continually improving. Produced by a company called Onset, our curatorial department utilizes a brand of data-reading devices aptly called “HOBO loggers.” These loggers are initially hooked up to a software system that allows us to program their settings; here, you can change the intervals at which temperature and humidity readings are being taken and also specify a loggers “home location”. After the loggers have been digitally set-up, they are taken out and placed into each of the eight buildings. Once they are placed in the correct room (based on their “home location” as it was programmed in the computer), the loggers are turned on and they immediately begin to record the climate changes within those spaces. The best part of these new-age digital loggers is that you only need to collect the data once a month, as opposed to once a day (as was necessary with the hygrothermographs). Thus, once a month we visit each of the loggers and simply connect it to a data reader via a USB cord. Then we simply bring the data reader back to a computer, upload all the recorded information from all of the historic houses, and voila! The climate condition data analysis can begin!

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A traditional hygrothermograph (left) and the digital HOBO logger (right) used on Historic Huguenot Street.

Now I know that at this point many are wondering, “so what,” and “who CARES about climate data anyway!?” I guess all I can say is that I used to agree with you; this entire process once seemed tedious and unimportant to me as well. That is until I began to see the devastating effects of environmental variables with my own eyes! This past winter it came to our attention that three of our most prized portraits were succumbing to the significant fluctuations in temperature and humidity that they had been subject to since they were painted in the early 19th century. These fluctuations resulted in the chipping of paint, the buckling of canvas, and in some areas, paint discoloration. We were forced to take action quickly in order to preserve these paintings, and thus had to hire the services of a trained conservator who specializes in painting restoration. Another example is the current situation we face with the Jean Hasbrouck House. Erected in the early 18th century, the Jean House has been a longstanding “face” of Huguenot Street and remains one of the most popular stops on our daily tours. Visitors regularly enjoy the newly re-furnished Storeroom, our impressive collection of Dutch kasten, and of course, the large wooden loom that sits in the Garret. What visitors don’t realize is that all of those beautiful collections pieces are in grave danger due to the deteriorating roof that covers the Jean Hasbrouck House. Although we have managed to catch this problem in the nick of time, structural issues such as a leaky roof or a cracked window are always more devastating when there are museum pieces involved.

While digital climate control is an ever-changing field for historic house museums such as HHS, we enjoy protecting our collection and welcome the publics’ help in that regard. As always, please refrain from touching or handling museum objects while on our guided tours and continue to support our mission by donating online.