Playing Detective: Mashups and Myths in the Decorative Arts
Our collections sometimes surprise us at The Henry Ford, as Curator of Decorative Arts Charles Sable has often experienced. Using his expertise about how the stylistic attributes of art historical movements have trickled into home goods — furniture and upholstery textiles especially — Sable has become adept at using different methods to “read” the physical evidence of the objects under his care. Even the imprints of manufacturing can leave essential clues: machine-sawn wood carries marks distinct from wood sawn by hand. Nails, nuts and bolts are similarly telling.
Working closely with conservation staff, Sable has uncovered surprising origin stories and debunked long-held presumptions.
Sable sat down with Kristen Gallerneaux, curator of communications & information technology, to share his favorite "collections mysteries."
Kristen- What is an example of an especially enigmatic object you’ve dealt with recently?
Charles- There is an overmantel, a decorative structure over a mantelpiece, located above the fireplace in the Lovett Hall ballroom. In 1968, it was published in a book called The Looking Glass in America, identifying it as a piece made in Salem, Massachusetts, in the Federal period style between 1800 and 1810. This was an incredibly “high-style” example, and this is also how Henry Ford understood it when he purchased it for Lovett Hall in 1936.
A few years ago, our conservation staff did a wood microanalysis on it, and we discovered that it is two different mirrors put together. And the wood proves it. The microanalysis of the side panels indicates that they are probably English in origin and the central panel is American. There was a decorative eagle on top that was added much later, probably in the 20th century. It’s amazing that it was published in multiple sources in the 1950s, 1960s as a stellar example...
A recent wood microanalysis of the fireplace overmantel in The Henry Ford’s Lovett Hall uncovered that it is made of two different mirrors — one English, the other American in origin. This debunks prior information that identified the piece as a high-style Federal period example made in Salem, Massachusetts.
Kristen- ... and no one caught it! It’s a great example of how — especially as conservation science and modern research evolve — those questioning whispers we feel aren’t always something to ignore. The fact that the overmantel wasn’t what we thought it was doesn’t make it any less valid as an object that a museum should own. It makes it livelier, knowing that at some point in the past, someone made this ad hoc decision to create a “Frankenstein” mashup, and now we can understand it as exactly that. Every museum seems to have artifacts like this: the mythologizing of objects and the stories that become engrained as absolute truth.
Every museum seems to have artifacts like this: the mythologizing of objects and the stories that become engrained as absolute truth.
Charles- The Lincoln rocker! [Editor’s note: Sable is referring to the rocker used by Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre the night of his assassination.] People often say, “I sat in the Lincoln rocker in the Logan County Courthouse in Greenfield Village.” And I say, “No way. It’s not true.” When the Lincoln rocker was in the Logan County Courthouse, it was always protected in an enclosed glass case. Always. We have photographs. We hold two other rockers that were owned by the Lincolns, and they spent most of their lives in the Logan County Courthouse in Greenfield Village. It was set up as an homage to Abraham Lincoln. So that’s where people sat. That’s the only explanation to that mystery.
Kristen- That seems like a reasonable explanation to me, though I’m sure some people who have such strong memories of sitting in the chair will be disappointed to hear this. Another
artifact I’m curious about is the desk attributed to Edgar Allan Poe in our Fully Furnished exhibit. Given Poe’s own credit as one of the first people to publish “detective fiction,” it seems fitting that we should talk about it, since we’re talking about mysteries here.
The Henry Ford’s portable desk owned by Edgar Allan Poe (above) harbors multiple clues to its history with the famous writer, from the extensive documentation that links it to Poe to the dated almanac and newspaper pages lining its lid (inset)
Charles- Of all our furniture collections with a past — with a provenance — that desk is the most unclear. When it was collected, there were signed affidavits from the original sellers that were then legally notarized. We have those affidavits and documentation that show that it went through several hands, and this is what links this object back to Poe. He was known for using this type of portable writing desk. There are also almanac and newspaper pages lining the lid that give a clue to its history and an approximate date. We believe it was the desk he used while a student at the University of Virginia. It wasn’t cheap at the time it was made, and he at one point needed money very badly — so my theory is that he pawned this desk [and this provenance stayed with it, given Poe’s later fame].
This post was adapted from an article in the Winter-Spring 2023 issue of The Henry Ford Magazine.