Tuesday, June 4, 2024

Collection Spotlight: Hair Wreath

There is a peculiar object that hangs above the desk in Rosamond Gibson’s bedroom. At first glance, the item appears to be a simple wreath of pressed flowers surrounding a woven circle, adhered to a paper backing and framed in gold. Upon closer inspection, however, the inner circle is actually a woven piece of gray human hair! Hair works, often made by women as a leisurely pastime, were meant to commemorate the death of a loved one or to honor a friendship.
Hair wreath, Gibson House Museum

The European tradition of human hair mementos trace their origins to the 17th and 18th centuries, usually to mark the death of a child. Pieces of hair could be pressed into lockets such as this mourning brooch to be kept as a token of remembrance.
Mourning brooch, Everhart Museum of Natural History

Hair wreaths, in particular, became popular in the nineteenth century and were an especially common custom in the Victorian era (1837-1901). Unlike our example of a hair wreath, most of these objects are entirely made of hair–each braided arrangement carefully coiled together to resemble flowers. It was also common for these wreaths to contain the hair of multiple people and could be placed around a photograph. Some of the more intricate hair
Hair wreath, c.1875. Maine State Museum
wreaths– which would have taken a lot of energy and time to complete– could be taken to jewelers or wig makers to arrange. Nineteenth century women’s magazines at the time, however, warned against taking your hair works to such places because the shops may add horse hair into the wreaths! Godey’s Lady’s Book, in particular, began in 1850 issuing monthly articles giving American women advice on how to make hair artworks, calling the practice an “elegant accomplishment.”
Courtesy of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and Mütter Museum.

Friday, May 24, 2024

Collection Spotlight: Asian Export Art

Americans, and especially merchants from Boston and Salem, entered the China Trade in the late eighteenth century and by 1804, they were dominating the trade. Trade was in tea, silk, porcelain and other household goods, and illegally, opium. The Chinese government confined foreigners to the port district of Guangzhou (called Canton), where China trade merchants operated. Art for the export market became an important feature of the trade and copious amounts of Chinese porcelain moved into Boston. 

The Russell family, including Nathaniel Pope Russell, who was Catherine Hammond Gibson’s brother-in-law, were major importers of Chinese porcelain. The Gibsons inherited some of the Russell collection, including a dinner service, a pair of large palace vases, garden seats, and flowerpots. These were imported by Russell in the 1830s; the dinner service has the “R” monogram, indicating it was designed especially for him. 
Porcelain lunch plate, teacup and saucer, and creamer, c.1840
Gibson House Museum 

You can see the influence of East Asian decorative elements elsewhere in the house, including in Rosamond’s bedroom. Her thirteen-piece bedroom set, made by American designer John Vaughn, is fashioned to look like bamboo; it was extremely trendy in its time. 
Bed, John Vaughn, 1871
Gibson House Museum

Friday, March 22, 2024

Artists Known: Two Dressmakers in Gilded Age Boston

"Mrs. M. A. Friend" and "Mrs. J. E. Chapman," creators of some of the gowns in the Gibson House collection, were self-made women, in more than just business. Even their ages were reinvented several times over the years, with different dates given to census takers. In a world that frequently defined women by the men around them, they belonged to a group that allowed (conditional) self-determination: career women. Both set out to make their mark in the female-dominated field of dressmaking.
Margaret Alice McKenna Friend was born around 1850 in New Ipswich, New Hampshire; Julia Evelyn Dobson Chapman between 1850 and 1857 in New Brunswick, Canada. The former would end up separated from her husband by 1900, with three daughters. The latter, who had no children, remained married to Everett Chapman, with whom she ran a dressmaking business, until her death.
The two women's paths converged in the same place: the Boston dressmaking world. Margaret first appears in the 1882 city directory working at 25 Winter Street; from then until her last listing in 1902, her business would move several times. The Chapmans seldom moved, settling at 579 Dudley Street in Roxbury from 1892 until their business closed in 1923.

Punch Magazine, July 28, 1877

Friday, August 25, 2023

Summering in Nahant

There were two social seasons in the elite Bostonian’s calendar: the winter season in Boston, which began in mid-November and lasted until the beginning of Lent; and the summer season, which ran from about May through September. In the summer season, the wealthy decamped for their summer homes on the coast and in the mountains. One of the most popular spots was Nahant, an island community about an hour north of Boston.

The Gibson family owned a summer home on Nahant called “Forty Steps,” named after the beach that the house overlooks. Catherine Gibson inherited the home from her father, Samuel Hammond, in the 1850s, and continued to summer there for most of her life. 
Forty Steps, Nahant (Gibson House Museum)

Tuesday, May 3, 2022

Venice and Boston: A 19th Century Love Affair

This blog post is one of a two-part series on collections at the Gibson House Museum from Italy.

When you leave the Music Room at the Gibson House, a small wooden icon frames the doorway above you. Visitors ask about this object regularly: What is it? Who is the saint depicted? Why is it located in such a prominent spot? As one of the only overtly religious items in this Brahmin (and, therefore, staunch Protestant) household, it does catch your eye.

The icon is of St. Mark (San Marco), the patron saint of Venice. On the wall to its right is a copy of Flora, a well-known painting by Venetian Old Master Titian. If Paris is sometimes considered the essential European destination for American travelers today, Venice held the same appeal for late-nineteenth-century American travelers. It wasn’t necessarily a center for contemporary art or fashion; rather, it represented an old Europe that Americans found exotic and romantic. Venice was no longer an international powerhouse, but its Renaissance-era art and architecture reminded travelers of its previous glory (in a distinctly non-threatening way).

Friday, April 29, 2022

The 19th Century Allure of Roman Ruins

This blog post is one of a two-part series on collections at the Gibson House Museum from Italy.

In 1898, after a year of study at MIT for architecture, Charlie Gibson took an extended trip to Europe. It was common for wealthy American men to make such a trip—to cap off their education and before settling down to work and family—known in nineteenth-century parlance as a Grand Tour. The Grand Tour could include a variety of European destinations (some even traveled as far as Turkey), but the essential stops were London, Paris, Venice, and Rome. Travel to Rome, in particular, was seen as a chance to complete a classical education, specifically through study of the architecture and history of ancient Rome.

Traveling to Rome was difficult in the nineteenth century. A robust tourist industry had developed by the eighteenth century, and yet transportation, lodging, and access to reliable guides remained sketchy. Some Italian architects and artists made a living serving Grand Tourists. Giovanni Batista Piranesi was one. Starting as early as 1740, Piranesi worked in Rome producing views of the ancient Roman ruins. For many, Piranesi’s depictions of Rome were the way they imagined and understood the city.
Veduta dell'Anfiteatro Flavio, c. 1771
Giovanni Batista Piranesi

Thursday, February 24, 2022

The Acquaintance of Charlie Gibson, Jr. and Isabella Stewart Gardner

Oftentimes visitors to the Gibson House Museum ask our guides about Charlie Gibson Jr.’s relationships with other well-known Bostonians, especially Isabella Stewart Gardner. Although the two were neighbors for nearly forty years, there is not much evidence that they were close. (Isabella Stewart Gardner was both a generation older than Charlie and was part of a higher social class.) There is, however, evidence that they were acquaintances. Isabella Stewart Gardner was, and still is, considered one of the most prominent, and perhaps
Drawing Room at 152 Beacon Street, 1900.
Image: Gardner Museum
eccentric, members of Boston’s elite in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. She was born in New York City in 1840 to a wealthy family. In 1860, just before she turned twenty, she married Jack Gardner and they moved to Boston, to 152 Beacon Street in the Back Bay. Although the couple traveled abroad quite a bit, Beacon Street was their home until Jack’s death in 1898, after which Isabella purchased land in the Fens for the museum and home they had been planning. During this same period, Charlie Gibson was born (1874), grew up in the Back Bay at 137 Beacon Street, and went on the trip to France which inspired his travelogue,
Two Gentlemen in Touraine (1899). The Gibson family lived just two blocks from the Gardners during the entire time they resided in the Back Bay.