Museum Musings ~ The American Antiquarian Society

I too often get so caught up in Jane Austen’s time and place – England, the Regency Period – that I forget that there is an abundance of resources right here in my own American backyard.  The Shelburne Museum is one such gem of a place to visit, and only a few miles from my home.  I spent my teenage years (and later dragging my own children) visiting Plimoth Plantation and Sturbridge Village and Colonial Williamsburg, such “living” museums feeding my love of history.  There is so much to see, to absorb, to understand! and the internet, while it makes so much so readily available, does create its own problem –  how does one possibly keep up with new material being added to the websites of  every and all of the museums, art galleries, stately houses, historical societies, libraries, auction houses, etc. out there? – the list is endless! 

But I do periodically randomly scout around and as anyone knows who researches on the web you find one thing and that leads to another that leads to another, etc., ad infinitum, and alas! you look at the clock and two hours have passed and that cannot possibly be true! – and then you want to post on something you find, but where is the time for that? – I am literally bogged down with thoughts – I maintain notebooks of ideas, most never to make the airwaves…

But I must share one such discovery from the other day: this was just going to be a short note in my weekly Penny Post,  but I think it deserves a post all its own.  I cannot even quite recall how I got there! – a book related link perhaps that sent me off to the American Antiquarian Society, and while lurking about I found their collection of online exhibitions – most all of interest to Janeites everywhere – so here goes, all images courtesy of the AAS:  click on the links to tour the online images – great stuff!

Beauty, Virtue and Vice: Images of Women in Nineteenth-Century American Prints

A Map of the Open Country of a Woman's Heart c.1833-1842

Most of the prints in the exhibit “Beauty, Virtue and Vice: Images of Women in Nineteenth-Century American Prints” were designed simply to please the eye, but they are also useful to historians who would like to understand how nineteenth-century Americans thought about the world in which they lived. Although prints are often works of imagination (even when they are grounded in fact), they still have much to tell us about the time and place in which they were created.

Artists were seldom concerned with representing people and scenes accurately, as we expect photographs to do, but took broad artistic license in creating scenes that would please the viewer’s eye. Even when artists depicted notable people, places, and events, artistic convention generally was more important than accuracy. Of course, these prints also tell us something of their creators’ point of view. Prints can be extremely useful for understanding the history of popular ideas, understandings, and beliefs. When read carefully and conscientiously, prints can be very useful documentary sources for understanding the past.


An Invitation to Dance: A History of Social Dance in America

The illustrations and objects depicted in this exhibition provide a brief glimpse into the history of social dance. The abundance of artwork and social artifacts available attest to dance’s importance throughout American history. Featured is not only its origin, fashion and forms, but also the unspoken language of dance. Always moving, always changing, dancing has never failed to enchant American society.

In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, dance became a forum for purposeful social activity; elaborate balls and private parties offered a means for a gentleman to seek his wife and allowed friends and family to share the new trends in music and dance. In the political sphere, balls provided a setting for politicians to exhibit their wealth and standing by their knowledge of the most fashionable dances.


A Woman’s Work is Never Done

Washing Day 1835

Although the majority of women chose to stay home, where society believed a woman should be, many ventured out into the working world either to begin their own business or to work for others in order to support themselves and their families. But whether a woman sought paid employment, or stayed at home to work in the domestic realm, she was always working. As Martha Ballard, a well-known eighteenth-century woman, wrote in her journal on Nov. 26, 1795, “A womans work is Never Done as ye Song Says, and happy Shee whos Strength holds out to the End…”

This exhibition brings together a selection of images from the Society’s collections that illustrate many facets of American women’s work, from the beginning of the American Revolution through the Industrial Revolution.


And the link that likely brought me here in the first place: 

A Place of Reading: Three Centuries of Reading in America 

'Clarissa' by James Baillie, 1848

A goal of this exhibition, and one of the goals of the American Antiquarian Society (AAS) itself, is to engage scholars in the study of the history of the book.  The history of reading is but one component of this broad and dynamic field of scholarship.  It is also an exceptionally difficult one.  In highlighting the locations where individuals performed the act of reading in America, through the use of images and objects from the AAS collections, we hope to tell a story.  It is not a definitive story by any means, but a story of three centuries’ worth of individuals ‘caught’ in the act of reading in homes, taverns, libraries, military camps, parlors, kitchens, and beds, among other places. 

At times we can see a person reading in a specific location; at other times people tell us where they are reading; and sometimes we have to perform leaps of faith and imagine, for example, a cookbook being read in the kitchen.  It’s the only logical location.  Or is it?  Our hope is that this exhibition will encourage other students of the history of the book to expand on this topic in as many imaginative and varied ways as the Society’s collection permits. 

Spend some time if you can at this online exhibition – a wonderful collection of images of readers!

But here is my favorite find: note very closely this image of the title page of The Ladies Library and the owner’s signature Jane Mecom 

An interesting aside: Jane Mecom was Benjamin Franklin’s sister – the unsung sister of a very famous brother [think Alice James, Dorothy Wordsworth, etc…] – you can read about her in this very recent article (April 24, 2011) in the NYTimes by Jill Lepore

Serendipitous, don’t you think that I read this article a few weeks ago and then find this title page image on the AAS site with her name in the book! [this is not noted on the website – I called to confirm that this book was indeed Jane Mecom’s and given to her by her brother and indeed it is! – and BTW, the reference person on the phone was delightful and most helpful!]


Well, as I said, one thing leads to another and somehow I rambled over from the AAS in Worcester Massachusetts to the website of the Boston, MA based Bostonian Society [at least I am still in New England!] – they have an online exhibition titled:

From Baby Caps to Mourning Rings: The Material Culture of Boston’s 18th-Century Girls & Women 

Bostonian Society - 18th c baby's cap

And how interesting to note that the 1818 watch of Anna Eliot is used as a guide to take you through the hours of the day!  

It does indeed all come back to Jane Austen, doesn’t it! 

So enough “Museum Musings” for today – hope you enjoy these tours through the America of Jane Austen’s time! 

Copyright @2011 by Deb Barnum, of Jane Austen in Vermont 

2 thoughts on “Museum Musings ~ The American Antiquarian Society

  1. I loved how you said you dragged your kids to the historical sites. I grew up in Williamsburg and all of my Dad’s family were working for Colonial Williamsburg so my kids were dragged there and to Monticello and any other place of historical interest. I got back to Williamsburg with my husband and it led me to a love for the 18th century that then led me to a love for the 19th century by way of Miss Jane Austen! Someday I’ve got to get to Plimouth Plantation….


    • Glad you appreciated the “dragging the children” – the worst for my poor kids was a trek to Fort Ticonderoga – we were vacationing in a camper and my daughter, then about 12, refused to get out to head to the Fort, screaming “I HATE history!” at the top of her lungs for all the world to hear – she is now a teacher, so you never know!

      What a treat for you to spend your childhood in Williamsburg! – no wonder you are confused as to which century you belong in! – it is difficult isn’t it? – though if truth be told, I think we are better off looking at it all from this romanticized perspective – I don’t think I would have been dancing at Almack’s!

      Thanks for stopping by Karen,


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