Wednesday, July 18, 2012

There's Something in the Air

Object: Barometer, c. 1810
Accession #: 1992.0009

One historian states that in the 18th century,“it was becoming fashionable among upper-class households to own one of these useful instruments.” Wilton's barometer is an English (London) cistern type barometer by W & T Gilbert and Company with silver plate under a glazed window, ivory knob underglaze-which adjusts the vernier scale-- and swan’s neck pediment with brass mounts. The barometer also has a thermometer mounted on the front of the mahogany veneered case. 

Barometers, invented by Evangelista Torricelli in 1643, are instruments used to measure atmospheric pressure. The word barometer comes from the Greek words meaning weight and measure. A glass tube from which the air was removed is put in a dish of mercury. Mercury is used in barometers because, “its weight made it possible to use a reasonably short tube.” As the air pressure increases it pushes down the mercury forcing it up the glass tube and when air pressure decreases the mercury is lowered back into the base. Air pressure is measured in “inches of mercury”or millibars (mb). 

Air pressure is the force exerted by tiny particles of air. In the 17th century it was observed that there was a connection between the changes in the weight of air and those of the weather. As one source adequately puts it, “If a high pressure system is on its way,often you can expect cooler temperatures and clear skies. If a low pressure system is coming, then look for warmer weather, storms and rain.” Wind blows between areas of high and low pressure. Mr. Randolph might have owned a barometer as it would have proved useful for him and his livelihood of growing and selling tobacco from the plantation, which was contingent on the activity of the weather.

Many early barometers were made to fit the individual taste of those buying them. In  the latter part of the 17th century and into the early 18th century barometers were constructed and sold by cabinet-makers, clock-makers, instrument-makers, and opticians. However, one historian attests that “as the nineteenth century wore on the quality of domestic barometers declined; and the death of inventiveness led to stereotyped designs in which only superficial variations were made.” Therefore, the year of this barometer can be placed by its design.  Some characteristic designs in use in 1810, which are included in this cistern-tube barometer, are the mahogany frame, scroll pediment, and embellishments such as the use of ivory and wooden inlays. Also, a thermometer on the front of the case was a feature of the cistern-tube barometers of 1810. Leading makers around this time made their barometers in larger quantities and sold them to whole-sale retailers. It is their names that appeared on these later barometers.

In 1735, Edward Saul wrote in An Historical and Philosophical Account of the Barometer or Weather-Glass that barometers were in regular use in “most houses of figure and distinction.” It was no different later in the century when the Randolphs lived at Wilton, where the weather and temperature had a sway over the operation of the plantation and its cash crop, tobacco. It would not come as a surprise to see a barometer having a prominent place in an area of the house where Mr. Randolph would take care of the business of running his plantation. This provided him with a way of keeping an eye on what kind of weather to expect based on the rise and fall of the mercury. 


Goodison, Nicholas. English Barometers,1680-1860: A History of Domestic Barometers and
            their Makers. Crown Publishers, Inc. New York, 1968.
Netting, Ruth. “It’s a Breeze: How Air PressureAffects You: The Mercurial  Barometer:
            MeasuringPressure”. NASA.  22 January 2003.14 July 2012.                    
Netting, Ruth. “It’s a Breeze: How Air Pressure Affects You: Feeling Pressured?”. NASA.22
            January2003. 14 July 2012. <>
“Weather: How a Barometer Measures AirPressure”.  USA Today.  20 May 2005. 14 July 2012.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

A Gift Within A Gift

Object: Pin cushion/pillow, c. 1755
Accession #: 1986.0008
One historian describes “maternity” pincushions as being “popular in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as a gift to new mother [and] were stuck with pins arranged to form a design or verse, and as pins were expensive, the great number that went into the arrangement were a welcome gift.”  Most pins, which were made by hand in the 17th century, sold in America had been imported until the 1830s, when the manufacture of one-piece pins began in Connecticut.  The invention of a machine to make pins in one piece was made in the 1820s whereas previously pins came in two pieces, the head having to be clamped onto the shaft.  One historian stresses the importance of pins by stating, “Aside from the needle, there was no more important tool, especially for plain sewing, than the ordinary straight or common pin.”
This small square pin cushion is decorated with pins that form initials and dates.  The pin cushion was probably made by or for Mary Scott Randolph who was the wife of Brett Randolph I, cousin of William Randolph III, of Wilton.  The pins form the initials of Mary and Brett’s children, “R.R.” (Richard Randolph II) born August 17, 1754 (on back); “S.R.” (Susanna Randolph) born December 8, 1756; “H.R.” (Henry Randolph) born October 7, 1758; “B.R.” (Brett Randolph) born February 17, 1760.  The pin cushion is off white satin. This pin cushion could possibly be a “maternity pincushion” made for the mother either before or after the child was born.  The gift was not in the decorative pillow or pincushion, but was the collection of pins which were used for various things such as fastening diapers. Pins, particularly new ones, were also thought to bring good luck.

As pins were easily lost, pincushions were made out of a variety of materials including paper and fabric. Scraps left over from dressmaking could have also been used to make the maternity pincushion. Popular shapes for pincushions were hearts, stars, spheres, and squares. One historian points out how pincushions made as gifts for newborns “typically bore a design as well as a message, like one described by Anna Green Winslow in her diary: ‘My aunt stuck a white sattan pincushion for Mrs. Waters. On one side, is a planthorn with flowers, on the reverse, just under the border are, on one side stuck the words, JOSIAH WATERS, then follows on the end, Decr 1771, and on the next side and end are these words, Welcome Little Stranger.’”
The pin cushion in Wilton’s collection most likely was made for decoration as its pins are still intact. However, the person who lovingly formed the initials and dates of Mary Scott’s children might have meant for her to have used the pins as well. Either way, the pin cushion has been preserved and was kept through the succeeding generations of the family and continues to show what these humble metal fasteners meant to everyday life in 18th century.
Kirsch, Francine. "The Beaded Pincushion Meant for showing, not sewing", The New England
Antiques Journal, March 2010.  28-32.  21 June 2012.

Wiessman, Judith Reiter and Wendy Lavitt. Labors of Love: America’s Textiles and
Needlework, 1650-1930. Random House. New York, 1987.

Walton, Paula. “Pincushions”. A Sweet Remembrance. 21 June 2012.