A Pin Box in a Haystack

In honor of Presidents’ Day, the Museum’s 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

Urban Waterways newsletter issue 9

Urban Waterways and Education

Sockeye Salmon in the fish ladder at the Hiram M. Chittenden Locks. (U.S. Army Corps of Engineers photo by Shane Wallenda/released)

As waterways and their environs undergo the process of being restored and deemed valuable in the eyes of a variety of stakeholders, the multitude of their “values” has become apparent as residents and other interested parties seek to define, solidify, and justify their connections and right to these natural resources.   How do we utilize them? What roles can the natural world play in our lives?  This issue explores education along waterways.   Education can be defined as “the process of giving or receiving systematic instruction, especially at a school or university.”  It can also be defined as “an enlightening experience”.   As communities look to a future in which equitable access to reclaimed natural resources is one of the foundational pieces to healthy, sustainable communities what kind of educational experience is owed the people living along our urban waterways? Do either of the above definitions suit the task before us or is it a combination of the two?

The contributors of this issue present a variety of models for how our natural resources can be used as an integral part of the transmission of skills and values needed to ensure informed civic engagement in the variety of issues facing communities as they work to create a sense of belonging to and equal access to their natural world. UW Newsletter 9

If You Lived Here: the Historic Barry Farm Settlement

Archaeological artifacts from Historic Barry Farm on display at the Anacostia Community Museum, 2017

In celebration of the 150th anniversary of Historic Barry Farm, the Museum presents a display of unique household items from the late-19th to mid-20th centuries. These items were excavated by urban archaeologists at the site of the Anacostia Metro Station in 1981.

Back in 1867, the Freedmen’s Bureau purchased 375 acres of land from Juliana Barry to create a settlement where freed slaves and free blacks could build their homes. The lots ranged in price from $125-$300 which had to be paid in instalments over two years. Lumber for the construction of a basic 14×24-foot house was also available for purchase. In order to pay for their new land, families held down jobs in the city during the day, and at night they crossed the river to build their homes. Over time, this post-bellum African-American community grew to include not only homes, but also schools, churches, and thriving businesses.

Porcelain Box from Historic Barry Farm, 1991.0064.0008

The objects on display in the exhibit illustrate a flourishing middle-class neighborhood. Some of the items were locally made, others imported, some mass-produced, and others hand-crafted. Of particular interest, the late 19th-century porcelain trinket box is stamped on the bottom with ‘Victoria Carlsbad Austria,’ showing that the neighborhood’s ladies favored elegant, European-made boxes for storing their treasured items. Another object, the stoneware crock bottle of ginger beer, suggests a preference for non-alcoholic beverages during Prohibition. The bottle was produced between 1910-1914 by the Washington Bottling Company once located at 465 Stafford Alley, SW, in Washington, D.C.

Beverage Bottle from Historic Barry Farm, 1991.0064.0005

The display complements an outdoor art installation titled “If You Lived Here,” created by Washington, D.C. artist Peter Krsko. The structure encourages us to reflect on how we live − in the house, the home, and the broader community across 150 years of shared history.

“If You Lived Here” Art Installation by Peter Krsko & Pink Line Project, outside the Anacostia Community Museum, 2017

Please join us for programming through July 2nd! More information is at https://www.ifyoulivedheredc.com/events/

This project was developed in collaboration with The Pink Line Project + Citizen Innovation Lab, the DC Preservation Office, and with funding from the DC Office of Planning and the Kresge Foundation.

For further information on the area’s history, check out:
http://cdi.anacostia.si.edu/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Portia-James-EOR-Article.pdf

Urban Waterways Newsletter Issue 8

Urban Waterways and Community Collaboration

Living Classrooms “Fresh Start” program participants helping construct the boardwalk over the marsh on Heritage Island. Lee Cain

This 8th issue focuses on the value and practice of community collaboration. Hyon Rah points to a growing realization among practitioners tackling issues of development along waterways that an integrated approach driven by community input and needs is means to sustainable success. Lee Cain highlights how the community’s role in building and maintaining the natural space of Kingman Island in DC can create a sense of stewardship and connection to place, while providing a path for future personal and civic development. ArtReach’s Melissa Green demonstrates the various ways communities can and want to be engaged in conversations regarding the health of their neighborhoods and natural world through art. The City Project provides a list of best practices through a tracing of the history of community driven collaborations aimed at park access and health equity in LA, while the Waterfront Development Corporation in Louisville serves as a case study of successful community engagement that has lasted for over thirty years, as the citizens of Louisville have embraced the various stages of the city’s front lawn which is entering its fourth stage. Urban Waterways Newsletter 8 

 

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