Smithsonian Tells 200 Years of History Through One House
Exhibit Showcases Largest Object in the National Museum of American History
April 19, 2001
Through its newest exhibition, “Within These Walls…,” the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History will showcase 200 years of American history as seen from the doorstep of one house that stood from Colonial days through the mid-1960s in Ipswich, Mass. Opening May 16, the 4,200-square-foot exhibition will highlight five ordinary families whose lives within the walls of the house became part of the great changes and events of the nation’s past.
The largest artifact in the museum, the Georgian-style, 2 ½ - story timber-framed house was built in the 1760s, just 30 miles north of Boston and stood at 16 Elm Street until 1963 when efforts by Ipswich citizens saved it from the bulldozer. Today, the house is the centerpiece of “Within These Walls…” and visitors will be able to peer through its walls, windows and doors to view settings played out against the backdrop of Colonial America, the American Revolution, the abolitionist movement, the industrial era and World War II.
“Ordinary people, living their everyday lives can create extraordinary history,” said Spencer R. Crew, director of the National Museum of American History. “This exhibition will inspire our visitors to look at history in a new way, a history that begins at home,” he added.
The exhibition is sponsored by the NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®. “This truly is an historic event for NAR to be able to bring “Within These Walls…" to millions of visitors, said NAR President Richard A. Mendenhall. “This sponsorship showcases NAR's commitment to educating the public about home ownership and its role in the American Dream,” he added.
Other support for the show is provided by Discover, Mass Interaction and the David Greenewalt Charitable Trust.
The exhibition’s curatorial team researched nearly 100 occupants who once lived in the house. Their stories show some of the ways Americans have made history in their kitchens and parlors. Inside this house, American Colonists created a new genteel lifestyle, patriots set out to fight the Revolution, and an African-American struggled for freedom. Neighbors came together to end slavery, immigrants made a new home and earned a livelihood, and a woman and her grandson served on the home front during World War II.
For the exhibition, portions of three rooms and the entrance hall have been restored and furnished with objects from the period to show activities that would have taken place in the house. As visitors tour the exhibition, they will see more than 100 objects, including a rare Revolutionary War uniform, an 18th-century tea table, an anti-slavery almanac and the Wedgwood Anti-Slavery medallion, and WWII-era cookbooks, posters and a “blackout” kit. There will also be interactive educational activities and audio experiences, including a 19th-century laundry simulation, tactile models of the house and examples of early American building techniques, such as mortise and tenon joints and moldings.
Rich in its history, the main section of the house was built in the 1760s for Abraham Choate. He purchased the lot for his home in 1757, in the center of Ipswich, then a busy center of maritime commerce. Choate, a gentleman merchant attached part of an older structure, built about 1710, to his new house. The new home provided enough room for Choate’s eight children. Other owners added a two-story addition and one-story sheds in the 1800s.
The Choate parlor, elegantly set for tea, is the first setting visitors will see. At a time in the 1700s when most people lived in small, cramped one to three room houses few families could afford the luxury of having one room elegantly finished for entertaining.
Abraham Dodge, who fought at the battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, bought the house two years later. Looking into the entrance hall of the house, visitors will learn about a household that was transformed by the American Revolution. By 1786, the year of Abraham’s death, the Dodges were no longer British subjects and slavery had legally ended in Massachusetts. Chance, an African-American man, remained in the household as Dodge’s servant. The war years left Dodge in debt and his family was forced to sell the house after his death.
Josiah and Lucy Caldwell bought the house in 1822, and in the following decades it became a part of the most controversial social reform of their time -- abolishing slavery throughout the nation. A parlor setting showcases the room as the center of the family’s religious and social life. A newspaper ad from 1839 tells us that Lucy hosted meetings of the Ipswich Female Anti-Slavery Society in her home.
As industrialization swept through Ipswich, the house was purchased as an investment in 1865 from the Caldwell estate by the wealthy Heard family and divided into rental apartments. Among the Irish immigrants living here were Catherine Lynch and her daughter Mary. Mary worked in a hosiery mill and Catherine took in laundry. Some years, she paid part of her rent by doing wash for the Heards. The exhibition vignette will give visitors a sense of what doing laundry was like in the 1870s and 1880s.
The final setting is the kitchen of the house where by 1942 Mary Scott and her family were part of the war effort. Set with canning equipment, the room illustrates how Mary worked with her young grandson Richard Lynch to grow vegetables, conserve fat and save tin cans, while her two sons went off to war. Her daughter, Annie Scott Lynch, worked in a factory making war materials.
Clues used by Smithsonian historians to uncover the stories told in the exhibition are described at the end of the show. The museum has designed a guide, titled “House Detective: Finding History in Your Home,” which will be available in the exhibition and through the Web site: http://americanhistory.si.edu/house.
Opening Festivities and Victory Garden
On May 19, the opening festivities will include demonstrations of 18th - century crafts, featuring Roy Underhill, host of the PBS series “The Woodwright’s Shop.” Other presentations include plastering, quilting, lacemaking, and canning, and period music. That Saturday, the museum also opens its World War II-era Victory Garden, designed by the Smithsonian’s Horticulture Services Division.
The NATIONAL ASSOCIATION OF REALTORS®, “The Voice for Real Estate,” is America’s largest professional associations, representing more than 750,000 members involved in all aspects of the real estate industry. Information about NAR is available at http://nar.realtor.com.
The National Museum of American History traces American heritage through exhibitions of social, cultural, scientific and technological history. Collections are displayed in exhibitions that interpret the American experience from Colonial times to the present. The museum is located at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue N.W., and is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m., except Dec. 25. For more information, visit the museum’s Web site at http://americanhistory.si.edu or call (202) 633-1000.