Now that we are getting close to wrapping up our Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) Museums for America grant to conserve, photograph, catalog, and rehouse artifacts from our collection, some of the staff who have worked on this grant would like to share interesting objects they’ve encountered over the course of the grant.
Marlene Gray, IMLS Project Conservator, has three objects she would like to share.
Dodge & Zuill Easy Model C Washing Machine, circa 1912 / THF186088
As the IMLS Project Conservator for the last year of the grant, clearing space for larger objects in storage was our main priority. However, there were chances to conserve some interesting objects, one of which was a copper electric washing machine from the early 20th century. The dazzling copper tub was a sight to behold while in the conservation lab. While cleaning it, I remember thinking how grateful I am that technology has come such a long way in making tasks simpler!
Next is this footwarmer from the mid-19th century:
This footwarmer was a cute object to conserve because of the decorative elements in the wood frame and pierced tin stove box. One of the wooden columns had separated from the rest of the object. The opportunity to completely reassemble the object and give it a thorough cleaning made it feel as though the little stove could still be heated for the approaching cold months.
The great thing about conservation is that you are always learning about history through ordinary objects. While the conservation treatment of this object involved relatively simple metal polishing and glass repair, learning about the inventor of the lubricator cup, Elijah McCoy, and his connection to Detroit was fascinating. I highly recommend exploring his story, like I did!
Next up are Susan Bartholomew and me, Laura Myles, Collections Specialists in the Registrars’ Office. We have worked closely cataloging and researching the objects that have been selected for the grant. It was hard to narrow down our favorite objects, or at least the ones we think are the most interesting, but here is a brief overview of some of the objects we enjoyed working with the most.
My name is Susan Bartholomew. I am a Collections Documentation Specialist and simply put, my role in this project was to update or revise catalog records for objects selected for the grant. This included identifying and applying accession numbers, which allow us to track an object both physically and digitally using our database, as well as conducting provenance research, and creating or modifying existing records in our database using cataloguing standards.
My personal highlights for this grant include the following.
Model of a Hook and Ladder Truck, circa 1900 / THF170406
This incredibly detailed handmade model of a turn-of-the-century fire truck is complete with removable ladders, firemen’s tools, and what are possibly the world’s tiniest leather fire buckets.
From the tiny to the huge, this is a shop sign in the form of a giant gold-painted tin teapot. It stands over three feet tall and four feet long from spout tip to handle. For more information about this unique giant teapot, check out this blog post Senior Conservator Louise Beck wrote about its surprising discovery.
A very early example of a type of telephone that had no batteries, this device operated on the same principle as two tin cans connected by a string, an idea that had been around for centuries. They were used in pairs and were connected over a short distance by a tightly stretched wire. With no dependence on electricity, they were advertised as being more reliable than battery-operated telephones. This unit was one of a pair used by the father of the donor to connect the flour mill he operated to the boats he used to ship his flour. One set would be at the mill and the other was placed on the wharf boat half a mile away.
And now, Laura Myles shares her favorites.
Like Susan, I have assisted with cataloging, but I also research objects more in depth to uncover missing dates and/or manufacturers, as well as approving records to go online into our Digital Collections. Working on the grant over the last three years has been a wonderful learning experience, as the objects are so varied you really have no idea what to expect.
Megalethoscope Slide, "St. Mark's Square," lit up / THF179346
Perhaps my most favorite object is the megalethoscope and its slides. One of the best parts of my job is rediscovering hidden treasures in the collection. While we knew this was something special by looking at it, it was not until we were working on the slides that we knew how truly special it was.
At first glance, it looks like the megalethoscope is a fancy magic lantern device—merely projecting the images on slides. The megalethoscope was designed by Charles Ponti while he was living in Venice, Italy circa 1862. Ponti photographed his travels through France, Switzerland, Italy, and Egypt, and it was these photographs that he turned into transparencies for his megalethoscope, costing five francs each at the time. These transparencies look like normal slides until they are inserted into the megalethoscope and manipulated to show night views painted onto the backs of the images but hidden by a dustcover. One of the 22 slides can be seen above. For even more information about the megalethoscope, here is a blog post written about its conservation and photography.
Another object that I enjoyed researching was this naval cannon. While we know this cannon was accessioned in 1929, we do not have information about who made it or where it was used. Based on its estimated manufacture date, circa 1780, and similar design to British artillery, I reached out to the Royal Armouries, which helped eliminate the possibility of it being British in origin. Unfortunately, we do not know its history, but at least we know it was very likely made in the United States to be used on a merchant marine vessel.
This sign advertising the O. H. Perry Inne is one of my favorites just for its connection to the War of 1812 and Oliver Hazard Perry. On the front of the sign is a portrait of Perry, there is an eagle with seventeen stars above (although there were eighteen states by 1813, further adding to the mystery), and the words “Lake Erie” below on the reverse. Perry was regarded as a hero after defeating a British squadron in Lake Erie, which led to Detroit being freed from British control. Unfortunately, this sign’s history has been lost to time, although there are similar signs that have come up for auction. It seems likely that some local establishment capitalized on Perry’s name, probably along Lake Erie. We can only imagine the building it adorned.
One of the more recent objects to make my short list, and Susan’s as well, is this turtle spittoon. We think it is one of the cutest objects to have come through the IMLS pipeline, especially since spittoons themselves are not the most elegant of objects. Apparently turtle designs for spittoons were quite popular in their time, as well as remaining popular among collectors. The one in our collection is functional: pressing the turtle’s head flips open the shell to reveal the bowl.
If you would like to know more about the cataloging process, you can read more about that here (and see a few more interesting objects we have worked on as a result of this and a previous IMLS grant), and if you would like to know more about the provenance research Susan refers to, check out Associate Registrar Aimee Burpee’s blog post.
This is but a small sampling of some of our favorite objects from this grant. Over the course of the grant so far, we've digitized nearly 3,000 objects, and cataloged and conserved over 4,300 total objects. Unfortunately, this means that we had to be a little bit picky in what we shared here, but hopefully you will discover more of the treasures from our Collections Storage Building yourself while searching our Digital Collections.
Marlene Gray is IMLS Project Conservator, Susan Bartholomew is Collections Documentation Specialist, and Laura Myles is Collections Specialist, all at The Henry Ford.
As a Collections Specialist in the Registrar’s Office, I help catalog The Henry Ford’s collection. If you have used our Digital Collections, then you have seen a small part of what we capture when cataloging.
Cataloging is the process of documenting collections objects by recording information in a computer database. We record such information as who made the object, where it was used, what its measurements are, what it is made of, how it may have been used, and any related stories. In order to fully flesh out catalog records, we often must become detectives to figure out an object’s past. This could be as simple as searching patent records, or as complex as using Ancestry.com to learn more about the people behind the object.
This graphic shows how cataloging fits into our larger digitization process.
So how do we catalog? Using standards that have been informed by the Getty Research Institute’s Art & Architecture Thesaurus, Library of Congress, and Nomenclature 4.0. We have adapted these standards and developed our own to ensure that each cataloger is on the same page. These standards guide us when describing the objects we are cataloging to ensure we use the same language—for example, whether or not to spell out the Saint in Saint Louis. This consistency will make sure the records are easily retrievable, both in our database and online.
Each object is assigned a number that enables us to track it in the collection, both physically and digitally (in our database). We record as much information as we can from the object itself. Unfortunately, most objects do not tell us when they were made, even if they do have manufacturer information. If it has patent information, that does not necessarily mean it was made in that year, either. We cross-reference catalogs, primary source documents, and sometimes other objects in the collection to narrow down date ranges.
Model of Van Depoele Rotating Pole Motor, circa 1885 / THF165665
Sometimes we have to dig through genealogical records to figure out when an object was made. One such object, the motor model shown above, was documented as made by “Feigo,” but when the typo was corrected, I used Alexander J.R. Fiego’s entire professional history (from city directories available on Ancestry.com) to figure out when he made this motor model. It was fascinating tracking all of his professional changes throughout the years, as well as seeing advertisements in the city directories. Catalogers often fall down interesting rabbit holes while researching objects. Sometimes such research tangents help us connect previously unrelated objects in the collections, or we just learn more about the past – fun adventures we share with our co-workers!
A screenshot showing some of the many records available on AncestryLibrary.com that were used when researching Alexander J.R. FIego.
Ensuring that our cataloging information is accurate can mean poring over United States patent records to help with narrowing down dates or finding manufacturers. While researching a light socket with the inscription: PAT. MAY 6 - 84APR 21 - 85JUNE 16- 85 / U.S. / SYSTEM, patent records helped not only to narrow down when the object was created, as it would not be associated with any patent taken out after June 16, 1885, but also to identify the creator. Any company with “United States” in its name, like the “United States Electrical Lighting Company,” is likely going to be a challenge to find unless they are in a niche industry. Thankfully, the light socket had full patent dates that allowed me to easily search through patent records with the help of Google Patents; the ones that helped me identify the creator of this socket are linked above, and a screenshot, below, shows one of the June 16, 1885, patents.
One of the three patents that was used during the course of research on 00.1164.6.
Even with all of our due diligence, objects can sometimes be disassociated from their number over time. We refer to these objects as “found-in-collections,” and when researching them, go through the same process as above. However, since we do not know when the object was donated or how the donor used it, this is where we really become detectives. If we cannot uncover its actual number using our files, then it receives a found-in-collections number in the hopes that one day we can reunite it with its provenance.
(As an aside, provenance research is a very important part of our process and can take a long time. Look for an upcoming blog post by my colleague Aimee Burpee highlighting some interesting stories we have uncovered via provenance research.)
Once cataloged, if an object is requested for digitization, it is photographed and then the object record is put through a review process. After these steps are completed, the artifact is flagged for our Digital Collections and harvested by automated processes for release online—where you can search and view it!
While researching the many electrical objects being digitized as part of the Institute of Museum and Library Sciences grant, a few stories have stood out to me. These stories sometimes involve the people behind the scenes: manufacturers, inventors, etc., and other times are about how the object was used. Below are four such objects and their stories.
This Jenney Electric Motor Company rheostat has uncovered an interesting story about the company’s namesake. It was designed by Charles G. Jenney who was awarded a patent for it in 1892. Jenney, originally from Ann Arbor, Michigan, moved to Fort Wayne, Indiana with his father to design and produce electrical equipment for the Fort Wayne Jenney Electric Light Company. On February 27, 1885, Jenney, who had been contracted to the Fort Wayne Jenney Electric Light Company by his father while still a minor, successfully petitioned to be removed from the company, and, a month later, he founded the Jenney Electric Light Company later the Jenney Electric Company. The Jenney Electric Company was demonstrating Jenney’s dynamos, arc lamps, and incandescent lamps by August that same year. This company was bought out and Jenney started again, this time with the Jenney Electric Motor Company in 1889 for which he produced electrical equipment like this rheostat, filed for more patents, and wired and lit the streets of Indianapolis.