A Pin Box in a Haystack

In honor of Presidents’ Day, our Registrar highlights the museum’s curious connection to President Wilson.

From George Washington’s first inauguration until the present, Americans have been captivated by the nation’s highest office, and immediately that fascination extended into collecting and preserving objects associated with the Presidency. What started as a personal pursuit in the early 19th century has become the purview of museum and library professionals who collect, preserve, and curate objects related to each Commander in Chief.

As the Smithsonian’s community museum, our interest is in the everyday lives and experiences of ordinary people. As such, we are most interested in the local and personal manifestations of the Presidency. Our collection includes campaign buttons worn by community organizers, and pens that signed legislation into law.

One item in our collection, a small porcelain box with lid, recently caught me by surprise. The box was labeled as an archaeological artifact, part of a group of objects excavated in 1991 prior to the construction of the Anacostia Metro station in Washington D.C. It was stored in a cabinet with other archaeological finds from this dig, including early 20th century glass bottles, broken porcelain, keys, and other small items. At first glance, the attribution made sense because these things were all early 20th century household items. A maker’s mark on the bottom of the box, ‘Victoria Carlsbad, Austria,’ identified it as a fairly common item, readily available for purchase in Washington in the early 1900s.

This porcelain pin box in our collection is said to have been a gift from President Wilson’s wife to a local dressmaker. Object No. 1991.0064.0008a+b.

However, two recent discoveries caused me to question this attribution. Our friends from the D.C. office of Historic Preservation came to do an inventory of all the archaeological finds and field notes, and found no specific mention of this box. While not entirely unusual, this was intriguing. Meanwhile, a team of collections researchers were scouring through hundreds of files related to past exhibitions at the museum. One file referenced a china pin box donated by Mrs. Rosa Ware Jones, which was displayed in the museum’s 1977 exhibition The Anacostia Story, 1608-1930. This reference immediately attracted my attention.

What was so distinctive about this reference? I noticed the word “donated” – implying the box in the exhibit was a gift to the museum – yet I knew of no “china pin box” documented as such in our collection. Exhibit documents recorded the box’s provenance: given by one of President Woodrow Wilson’s wives to a dressmaker named Lillie Green, born in 1882, who lived on Elvans Road SE in the 1910s.

The Green family listed as living on Elvans Road SE in the 1910 Federal Census.
Year: 1910; Census Place: Precinct 11, Washington, District of Columbia; Roll: T624_149; Page: 11B; Enumeration District: 0234; FHL microfilm: 1374162

Could this be our box? I looked for additional sources that might corroborate the box’s origin. Inventories conducted by museum staff over the years all list the porcelain box, but offer little additional information. Yet I noticed that an inventory conducted in 1988 described a “china pin box,” using the same words as the Anacostia Story exhibition script and thus confirming that the museum kept the box after the exhibition. Later inventories continue to list this box and no other, even after the 1991 acquisition of the archaeological artifacts – casting further doubt on the archaeological provenance. Finally, a grainy photograph of the exhibition surfaced, showing a small white object on display. The poor quality of the photograph makes it difficult to see, but the item could be our box.

Knowing all of this, and looking again at the box and lid, its attribution to the archaeological dig is suspicious. It is in good condition, with a few scratches but no breaks – unlike virtually all of the material from the dig.

So assuming this is indeed the “china pin box,” does its story hold up?

First, who was Lillie Green? Federal Census records for 1900 and 1910 list her as a dressmaker born in 1882, living at 93 Elvans Road SE with her father, brothers, and sisters. She is listed with the same address and occupation in the 1913, 1916, and 1918 Washington, DC city directories. Better yet, this corresponds to President Woodrow Wilson’s time in office, making its story plausible: that the box was given to Ms. Green by one of President Wilson’s wives.

Lillie and Lula Green appear in the 1913 Washington, D.C. City Directory

Ms. Green died prematurely on August 21, 1917, as recorded the next day in the Washington Evening Star. What happened to her china pin box? It appears to have been passed down in the family, a treasured heirloom with a remarkable story. Federal census records and newspapers – as well as ancestry.com – identify Ms. Rosa Jones as the daughter of Lula Green, Lillie Green’s younger sister. It was Rosa who, six decades later, donated her aunt’s box – along with its exceptional story – to our museum.

We cannot corroborate beyond a doubt that this pretty porcelain pin box was a gift from the President’s wife. However, all the pieces available to us coincide to support Rosa Jones’ statements at the time she donated the box to our museum. Significantly, Mrs. Jones’ gift attests that Washington residents, like others around the country, have long treasured objects with a presidential connection.

A Portrait of Frederick Douglass

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