On the Road with Richard Welling: Along the Maine Coast


Wrecks- Wiscasset. Drawing by Richard Welling, ca. 1974. The Connecticut Historical Society, Gift of the Richard Welling Family, 2012.284.5642

When I was growing up, my family spent two weeks in Maine every summer, and those were probably the best two weeks of my entire year. Later on, when I was grown up and living in the Boston area, I went to Maine frequently, both on weekend day trips and for extended vacations, exploring parts of the state that I hadn’t known as a child. When CHS was given the Richard Welling Collection in 2011-2012, I was delighted to discover that Richard Welling had drawn many of my favorite Maine landmarks, including the Hesper and the Luther B. Little, two derelict schooners on the waterfront in Wiscasset.  In fact, he made this drawing one summer while he was traveling with his daughter, just as I used to travel up the Maine coast with my parents long ago. The old schooners are gone now; after decades of vandalism and decay, their remains were moved to a local landfill in 1998. What I didn’t realize when I used to stop to admire the old ships was that such abandoned wrecks were once not an uncommon sight throughout New England, even right here in Connecticut. For many years, the old wooden whaler Colgate could be seen rotting away in Winthrop Cove in New London.  To see more pictures by Richard Welling, visit the Richard Welling Collection in the CHS online catalog.  To see pictures of Colgate, before and after it was abandoned in Winthrop Cove, look in Connecticut History Online.

On the Road with Richard Welling: Octagon Houses


Octagon House. Drawing by Richard Welling, probably 1976. The Connecticut Historical Society, Gift of the Richard Welling Family, 2012.284.5560

An “Octagon House” is just what it sounds like: an eight-sided dwelling. Octagon houses were something of a fad in 1850s America. They were promoted by a New York phrenologist names Orson Squire Fowler, who believed such houses were cheaper to build, easier to heat, and cooler in summer. Octagon houses are scattered all across the United States from Maine to California. Tiny Portland, Connecticut has not one, but two octagon houses, and they are located next to each other, at 26 and 28 Marlborough Street. They were built in the mid-1850s for Joseph Williams and Gilbert Stancliff. The material used, not surprisingly, was Portland brownstone. It’s sometimes said that the twin houses were built for two brothers, but obviously this was not the case. Joseph, however, was married to Laura Stancliff, presumably Gilbert’s sister. It is also not surprising to find that Gilbert worked in the Portland brownstone quarried; Joseph, however, was a shoe merchant. Always attracted by anything quirky or unusual, Richard Welling probably photographed and drew the octagon house pictured above during the 1970s, when he was working on a book about historic houses.  It’s most likely somewhere in New England, perhaps even in Connecticut, but I’m not sure where.  If someone knows, I’d love to hear from you. To see more drawings by Richard Welling, check out the new Richard Welling Collection in eMuseum, the CHS online museum catalog.

The Mapmaker’s Daughter



Map of Connecticut circa 1625: Indian Trails, Villages, Sachemdoms. Compiled by Mathias Spiess, Drawn by Hayden L. Griswold, Copyrighted by Mary Pierson Cheney, 1930. The Connecticut Historical Society.

It’s a Cinderella story. Mary Pierson (1874-1949) was the daughter of Stephen C. Pierson, a civil engineer based in Meriden, Connecticut. The CHS has a large map of Meriden surveyed by Pierson in 1891. In 1898, his daughter Mary married Horace Bushnell Cheney, a member of the Cheney silk manufacturing dynasty. The couple traveled widely, had a huge mansion on Forest Street in Manchester, Connecticut overlooking the Great Lawn and a vacation home in Marlborough, Connecticut. Besides helping to run the silk business, Horace was a talented amateur photographer who took many pictures of Mary and their children. In 1930, Mary, who was president of the Colonial Dames, asked Mathias Spiess, a tobacco broker who was the unofficial town historian of Manchester, to compile a map based on his extensive research on Native Americans in Connecticut. The map, which incorporates details from early Dutch maps of New England, was drawn by Hayden L. Griswold, a prominent Manchester civil engineer. The Colonial Dames distributed free copies of the map to libraries and historical societies throughout the state. I’d like to think that this map was inspired at least in part by Mary’s memories of her father, who died suddenly in 1918, while he was out surveying.

With generous support from Connecticut Humanities, the Connecticut Historical Society recently added more than 800 historic maps of Connecticut to its online database.  Also included in the database are hundreds of Horace Bushnell Cheney’s photographs of his family.

The Philadelphia Story… A Connecticut Story?

The Oscar-nominated movie that is known for its many catch phrases (“The calla lilies are in bloom again”) has a few distinct connections with the Nutmeg State. Katharine Hepburn, born of Hartford, created the role of Tracy Lord on the stage in 1939, which immediately preceded the 1940 on-screen release of The Philadelphia Story. Continue reading

An Olympic medal, a G. Fox Bracelet, and a Katharine Hepburn Costume

So, yesterday, on behalf of the Connecticut Historical Society, I attended the Connecticut Conference on Tourism in Hartford. Firstly, it is inspiring to see the number of wonderful institutions across Connecticut that are so passionate about what they are doing. There was lots of learning opportunities with workshops about social media, using video content, reaching core audiences in ways that are relevant to them, presentations, networking opportunities and all that. What I left with, however, was insight. Continue reading

A-Tisket, A-Tasket, a Green and Yellow Basket

In this photograph from the early twentieth century, two little girls in Hartford’s Mazzafera family are holding baskets of flowers. When I was cataloguing the photograph a couple of years ago, I described the baskets as “Easter baskets.” Maybe they are. The first mention I can find of “Easter baskets” in the Hartford Courant, however, is a 1922 ad for “fancy baskets filled with Easter novelties.” This suggests that in Connecticut at least, Easter baskets were part of the twentieth-century commercialization of the holidays and not an enduring custom from early times. The tradition of May baskets filled with flowers and given as gifts on May 1st, appears to go much farther back. “May basket socials” were popular in Connecticut in the 1890s. The baskets that the two Mazzafera girls are holding are full of flowers, not novelities, so perhaps they are May baskets rather than Easter baskets. Or could they be something else altogether? The Mazzafera family were Roman Catholics and in addition to Easter would have celebrated Corpus Christi Day at the beginning of summer. Part of the traditional celebration of this religious holiday included a procession of little girls carrying baskets full of flowers. Whatever the holiday, the flowers symbolize the renewal of life and hope that comes with nature’s rebirth after the dreariness of winter.

A Good Many Chestnut Trees About


Edwin Whitefield, Old Tavern and Store, Bolton. Drawing, ca. 1880. The Connecticut Historical Society, 1976.68.0

Before the chestnut flight devastated the forests in the early 1900s, American chestnut trees were a prominent feature in the Connecticut landscape. Chestnut trees grew tall and straight and the wood was used in the construction of barns and houses and the making of furniture, telephone poles, and railroad ties. The nuts were used as food by Native Americans and early settlers. When the artist Edwin Whitefield made his drawing of an old tavern and store in Bolton about 1880, he noted that there were “a good many chestnut trees about.” Chestnut trees are frequently noted in John Warner Barber’s drawings of Connecticut towns, dating from the 1830s. If you go to Connecticut History Online and search for “chestnut,” you’ll find lots of pictures of trees–and even more pictures of Chestnut Streets throughout the state, reflecting tree’s former popularity. The fungus that caused the blight was accidentally introduced on imported Japanese chestnut trees in the late 19th century, and within decades, nearly all of Connecticut’s chestnut trees had succumbed to the disease. Today you’ll still find a good many chestnut trees about, though these are usually European or Oriental chestnuts planted in parks and yards. And deep in the forests, the roots of the old American chestnut trees continue to sprout and grow, only to die when they become infected with the fungus, which is still present throughout the state. Efforts to find a disease-resistant strain or hybrid have yielded promising results and perhaps someday this sad story will have a happy ending.

The Last Wolf in Connecticut

I drove into work this morning behind a car with a bumper sticker for the West Hartford Wolves, a youth hockey team. Today we think of wolves and tough and brave, as noble symbols of wildness and of the wilderness. We now view wilderness itself as something rather rare and precious, good for the human the spirit. Three hundred years ago, people in Connecticut had a lot more direct experience with wolves and the wilderness such creatures inhabited. They considered both a threat to the fragile civilization that they were attempting to establish in the New World. By 1835, when John Warner Barber made this drawing, those days were past, and most of the state’s forests had been converted into farmland. It was less than sixty years since the American Revolution, however, and many old men and women still remembered those times. Some of the men would have fought with General Israel Putnam, one of Connecticut’s most distinguished war heroes. They would have known the story of how, as a young farmer, Putnam had killed the last wolf in Connecticut. Barber’s drawing shows and old man telling the story to two young boys, passing on the legend.

Men at Work

Welling Men at Work035

Construction Workers. Drawing by Richard Welling, 1969. The Connecticut Historical Society, Gift of the Richard Welling Family

Richard Welling was known as the “Artist in a Hard Hat” because he spent so much time at construction sites. He spent so much time drawing the World Trade Center when it was first going up in Manhattan that the Port Authority issued him a pass to the site—and his own hard hat. Welling was fascinated with how buildings are built, and he had a real affinity for the construction workers who build them. Though I don’t usually think of Richard Welling drawing people, his sketchbooks provide vivid glimpses of these men at work: ironworkers and welders and men pouring cement. In this double-page spread from one of Welling’s sketchbooks, the drawings on the back side of the sheets have bled through, creating a complex, multi-layered image that the artist may not have intended. The looming figure at the right is identified as a “sidewalk superintendent.” Tiny figures of construction workers appear in many of Welling’s drawings of construction and demolition, helping the human viewer to relate to their often inhuman scale. When the artist’s family gave the contents of the his Hartford studio to the Connecticut Historical Society in 2011-2012, it included hundreds of drawings, thousands of photographs, and dozens of personal artifacts, such as the artist’s hard hat. Welling’s work will be featured in an exhibition at the CHS this coming October.

Looking at the Backs of Things

Curators and catalogers spend quite a bit of time looking at the backs and bottoms of things, trying to glean information about pictures and objects.  Labels on the back of the frame of an oil painting may tell where and when it was exhibited or purchased.  Marks on prints and drawings may prove clues to previous owners.  Photographer’s names often appear on the backs of nineteenth-century photographs rather than on the fronts.  If the photographer moved frequently, then the address in the imprint can help determine the date of the photograph as well.  Other kinds of museum objects such as ceramics and silverware often bear their makers’ marks as well.  As a graphics curator, I’m not only fascinated by the artifacts that I work with, I’m fascinated by the people who made them.  The imprint of the Hartford photographer Daniel S. Camp appears on the backs of a lot of photographs of local landscapes and people taken in the late 1860s and early 1870s.