Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Good Ol' Fashion Gaming

Item: Game Table
Accession # 1960.3.1

The elite class of colonial America would often hold dinner parties for friends, family, and colleagues.  After dinner was finished, the women would retire to the parlor to gossip and entertain themselves. Meanwhile, the men would remain at the dinner table to discuss business and politics over more drinks, before joining the ladies in the ladies in the parlor.  At that point everyone would take part in the afternoon entertainments, which often included gaming or gambling.  Such gaming would take place at any one of the gaming tables the family may own.

The game table in Wilton’s collection is an English Queen Anne Triple Top Game Table.  This mahogany game table was beautifully crafted with elegant detail, most likely by a skilled cabinet maker, between 1725 and 1750.  The table has two playing surfaces: a solid mahogany surface and a red felt surface with carved square corners. The square corners are there to place candle holders for games being played during the night.   The red felt surface can been seen on the gaming table today.  The design of gaming tables has changed very little between the early eighteenth century and the mid eighteenth century.

Once the Randolph men and their male guests finished their drinks and discussion they would head to the game table to talk about their business dealings and any other issues that would have come up.  Not only would they talk about business, but they would also engage in friendly gambling. In the 1700s and on, card playing was a desirable social skill.  Games such as backgammon, chess, and checkers could be played on the solid mahogany surface, where as traditional card games such as whisk, poker, and all-fours would be played on the red felt surface.  Whisk is a four person, plain-trick game played with a standard fifty-two card deck. Poker was another popular game being played.  It is also played with a standard fifty-two card deck.  Poker players did not have partners and could bet as much as they would dare. The game All-Fours was another popular game being played during this time.  It usually was a four person game with two sets of partners, played with a fifty-two card deck.  The men typically gambled their slaves, money, horses, and parts of their plantations.  Many of these men gained and lost portions of fortunes and property while playing these game.  This game table provided an escape from the everyday worries of plantation life and is where a man could sit to have a good time with friends and strangers alike,


Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Keeping Time

Object: Tall Case Clock, c. 1795-1810
Ascension #: 1937.0001

     Furniture is what defines a room and there is no piece of furniture that makes its presence known more than a clock. According to one historian writing on the subject of clocks, “unlike other antiques, the clock is peculiarly alive—its friendly face, peaceful tick and faithful record of hours over generations of time and creates a bond between past and present”.  This Federal Tall Case Clock made by Simon Willard of Roxbury, Massachusetts stands a majestic 8.5 feet tall in the lower passage of the Wilton House. The Randolphs may have owned a clock similar to this.  If so it would have had a prominence in the house such as where this one does today.  As denoted by another historian, “if ever something could be defined as the focal point of an entire house—circa 1800… is chances are it would be a tall case clock.”

     This clock is ornate from top to bottom—its arched hood with three plinths or chimneys on which rests brass half dome finials, carved fretwork, and saw toothed decoration flanked by stop-fluted brass mounted columns with brass Corinthian capitals. The face of the clock has a white painted dial with calendar, date and second registers, centering the painted inscription “Simon Willard”. The spandrels on the face have female figures representing the seasons and at the top of the face there is purple painted flora. The clock face is behind a glass wooden framed door. In addition, this part of the clock has a glass window on each side through which can be seen the clock’s gears and other moving parts. The trunk or middle of the clock has a pendulum door with a bellflower and fan inlay, and is also flanked with columns having Corinthian capitals. The base panel has a central leaf with a beetle peeking coyly from beneath the leaves. The whole clock rests on ball feet and is made out of a variety of woods including mahogany, boxwood, cherry, tropical hardwood, and white pine.

     Its maker, Simon Willard, was born on his family’s farm in Grafton, Massachusetts. It was there that his eldest brother Benjamin built a workshop next to the house. It is thought this is where he taught his younger brothers, including Simon, the art of making timepieces and the science of measuring time, known as horology. Simon eventually opened his own clock business in Grafton. There he experimented to reduce the size of the timepieces that drove the clocks. Later he opened a workshop on Boston’s Roxbury St.  Simon and his brother Aaron, who also owned a workshop in the same neighborhood, got the parts and materials needed for their clock making businesses from nearby factories.  English suppliers were also a source for the materials used by Simon and his brother because the vital raw materials like brass were lacking in the early United States. Entire clock mechanisms were put into the mahogany clock cases made in Boston. One historian notes, “The clocks of Boston became a sign of status” due to their quality. 

     Simon Willard boasted on labels affixed on the inside of some of his clocks “These clocks are made in the best manner. They run for a year and they don’t wind up. We will give evidence that it’s much cheaper to buy new clocks than to buy old or second hand clocks. Simon Willard warrants all his clocks.”  Not only that, but Willard’s opinion according to one historian was that the clocks he made “had to be just so expensive that, after acquiring one, the people may be still able to furnish their fine homes”. His clocks were highly valued, especially for their precision, because he had “trained hands and a great eye, filling cogwheels without using marks”.  After 1802, Simon Willard only produced tall case clocks also known as long case clocks, by special commission. Willard clocks such as the one located at Wilton are examples of the Hepplewhite style which have inlay work and are more delicate in design than the Chippendale style.

     Clock-making in America first developed in Massachusetts and Pennsylvania, and then later in Connecticut, which became the birth place of mass produced clocks in about 1840. The earliest clocks produced were wall or hang-up clocks which had all of the clock movements, weights, and pendulums exposed.  The change to a tall case clock occurred in England from 1670-1700.  A hood was added to protect the clock movements and a case to hide the pendulums and weights. The inside of these tall case clocks were cable driven, with the weights being suspended by cables wrapped around a pulley mounted to the top of each weight.  Movements of Tall case clocks were mainly made of brass and ran for eight days.  These were lubricated with bacon grease and may have provided the origin of the children’s rhyme “hickory dickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock”.

     Three people were involved in the making of the clock: clockmaker who took care of the internal workings of the clock, cabinet maker who made the case, and artist who decorated the dial. There are many cases that were made by cabinet-maker Stephen Badlam for the Willard Brothers. This clock’s case may be one of them as Badlam owned a shop in Dorchester, Massachusetts.  A distinctive feature of Badlam cases are the way the pendulum doors are cut. The corners of the door are cut away and are highlighted with fan inlays.  Bedlam cases had fretwork not only on top, but frequently featured blind fretwork above the dial doors as well.

     Due to the labor and craftsmanship that went into making tall case clocks, they were considered luxury items often the most expensive object that could be found in a late 18th to 19th century home. The Randolphs were in the top 2% of the population due to their wealth and social status. There is no doubt that they could afford to own a tall-case clock similar to this Simon Willard clock whose distinctive character cannot be fully appreciated unless seen in person, which is dally at the top of the hour when its melodic chime strikes the hour.

Distin, William H. and Robert Bishop. The American Clock: A Comprehensive Pictorial Survey
            1723-1900 with a listing of 6,153 clockmakers. Bonanza Books. New York, 1976.

“Simon Willard Clocks”. Wikipedia. 8 February 2012.  

“Tall Case Clock Terminology” Gary R. Sullivan’s Antiques Inc.

Chiarello, Leslie. “The Tall-Case Clock”.  11 August 2010. 8 February 2012.

“Horology” 8 February 2012.  <>

“Thread: Grand Wilton Simon Willard Tall Case”. National Association of Watch and Clock
Collectors, Inc. 8 February 2012. <>

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Language of the Fan

Object: Fan, 19th century
Accession # 1989.0022

Are you looking forward to Wilton’s exhibit on love and courtship since the eighteenth-century? To peak your interest, this week’s object from the collection is a finely carved, ivory Chinoiserie fan. Chinoiserie [sheen-wah-zuh-ree] is a French term used to describe European objects that reflect Chinese artistic themes. This fan is decorated with paintings of Oriental scenes and animals and carvings of birds, vines, and flowers. Although this fan was made in the nineteenth century, its style reflects a trend that first became wildly popular two centuries prior.

During the seventeenth century, fans became popular all over Europe as a women’s accessory; however, they were expensive and considered a high status, exotic item. Like highly valued porcelain, these fans were imported from the East.

The fad for fans only increased in the eighteenth century.  These fans, imported to Great Britain from China by the East India Company, reflect the modes of trade and fashion at the time. What was once exotic and rare in the seventeenth century became a widely produced commodity for wealthy, fashionable women. Like Chinese export porcelain and more economical British Wedgewood ceramics, the finest fans were made of ivory and less expensive versions were constructed of bone.  Surviving examples demonstrate a variety of decorative themes from the earlier mentioned Chinoiserie to painted scenes from Greek mythology and current events.  A well educated woman could use her fan as an invitation to discuss Virgil’s Aeneid or the British victory at the Battle of Porto Bello.

In the nineteenth century, the French fan maker Jean-Pierre Duvelleroy once again fueled the fashion for fans when he was appointed supplier for Queen Victoria. His London fashion house published a pamphlet instructing ladies in the “Language of the Fan.” For instance , the fan held in front of the face meant “Follow Me”, or  the fan in front of the ear told a suitor to ”Go away.” Although  there are no primary sources  referencing  a coded “language of the fan”  before this brilliant marketing ploy that does not mean that women  across the centuries did not wield their fans with a purpose beyond cooling themselves on a warm afternoon or in a crowded ballroom. Madame de StaĆ«l, the late eighteenth-century author and influential woman of her time, had the following to say about fans:

What graces does not a fan place at a woman’s disposal if she only knows how to use it properly! It waves, it flutters, it closes, it expands, it is raised or lowered according to circumstances. Oh! I will wager that in all the paraphernalia of the loveliest and best-dressed women in the world, there is no ornament with which she can produce so great an effect.

The fan from Wilton’s collection is monogrammed with the initials “GBD.” How do you think this lady flourished her fine fan?


Baumgarten, Linda,  What Clothes Reveal: The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America.  The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2002.

The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, “Colonial Williamsburg ‘s Museum Collection of Historic Threads: Three Centuries of  Clothing. “ Online Exhibit, 19 January 2012.                     <>

Tea in a Teacup, “The Language of the Fan: Myth or Fact?.”  2 July 2011. 19 January 2012. <>

Also see: The Fan Museum, Greenwich,

Image credits: CW Fan 1740-1775; China for export to west, Ivory, painted paper, metal and paste rivet battle of porto bello