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Object of the Month #12: Vive la Différence?

Object of the Month #12
Vive la Différence?
Manchu Woman’s Platform Shoe (2013.01.137)
December 2015

Can you imagine walking in shoes like this? You would suddenly be 11 cm (over 4”) taller, balanced rather precariously on shoes with a significantly smaller footprint than that of your actual foot. I’m sure I would be on the ground with a twisted ankle in seconds, but my feet would be beautiful.

This is a 19th century woman’s platform shoe from China, made for a Manchurian woman. While many people have heard of lotus shoes, worn by Chinese women with bound feet, you probably haven’t seen a shoe quite like this one.[1]

The shoe was found in the archives by itself, without a mate.[2] The upper is light blue silk satin, with embroidered flowers and leaves. The topline is defined by a black band, edged with decorative blue and white stitching, and ribbon trim with minuscule fringe. Two lines of black piping over the toe are stiffer than the topline band, and may be waxed. The insole, sock lining, and platform covering are made of off-white cotton or hemp. The upper and platform are separated by a band of green piping. The bottom of the sole is quilted, presumably to provide a little traction, although the shoe shows minimal signs of wear. A vertical seam runs down one side of the platform, plausibly indicating the instep side, which would make this a shoe for the left foot. The inside of the platform is probably made of wood.

Although made for a very small foot (no larger than a size 4 U.S. woman’s shoe), it is still twice as big as the “golden lotus,” the name for an idealized three- to four-inch long bound foot. Even though the Manchu platform stands in marked contrast to lotus shoes, it developed in part as a direct response to them.

But first we need to step back and take a quick look at dynastic upheaval in 17th century China before we can talk more about this 19th century shoe. In 1644 the Qing Dynasty succeeded the Ming Dynasty bringing with it a change in the ethnicity of the ruling power from Han to Manchu. The Manchu insisted on keeping a formal separation from the Han, affecting many aspects of life and all social classes from the emperor on down. Manchurians were forbidden from marrying Han or having political associations with them. They observed different traditions in dress than did the Han. This dress code also prohibited Manchurian women from binding their feet.[3]

Bound feet were considered beautiful and dainty, and created a desirable gait. Because of their sheer impracticality, they also implied luxury and a life removed from physical labor. A Manchurian woman who wanted to achieve the same qualities had to work around the prohibition. The Manchu platform shoe, a style relatively popular in the 19th century, leaves footprints much smaller than the foot that wears it. When worn under a long dress or robe that hides most of the shoe, it gives the illusion of a much smaller foot, such as one that has been bound. The impracticality of the height of the platform would also affect the gait. Both types of shoe shared a common aesthetic, favoring similar iconography and materials on the uppers.

And yet, platform shoes differ from lotus shoes in not insignificant ways. The most obvious difference is that the Manchu platform shoe did not require permanently hobbled feet. The shoes give the illusion of greater height. Even obscured behind a long hem, they look distinctly different from lotus shoes, and the platforms themselves were often undecorated or decorated in a unique style.

One of the last rulers of the Qing Dynasty was a woman, the Empress Dowager Cixi. Descended from a prominent Manchu family, her own feet were never bound.[4] Technically a regent ruling for her son and then her nephew, the Tongxi and Guangxu Emperors respectively, she was the power behind the throne.[5] There are several photographs of the empress dowager wearing elaborate versions of this very type of platform shoe.

During her rule Cixi repealed several Han-Manchu restrictions. She lifted the ban against intermarriage between the two groups, and sought to forbid foot binding for Han women as well.[6] Interestingly, this backfired and actually increased the popularity of foot binding among the Han before the practice finally died out in the early 20th century[7], showing that at that time the Manchu were not alone in trying to preserve ethnic identity through clothing.

While lotus shoes and Manchu platforms may look like just an exotic “other” to someone unfamiliar with the styles and traditions behind them, at one time both types conferred distinct visual definitions of ethnic identity upon the wearer. Even though the Manchu platform did not supplant foot binding, towards the end of the Qing Dynasty it was a symbol of the ultimate power in China as exemplified by the Empress Dowager Cixi.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] Foot binding was introduced to China more than ten centuries ago, and didn’t fully disappear until the 20th century. A painful process started in childhood, the toes and arch of the foot were broken, and the feet were bound tightly in order to attain the desired shape and size. We have a few lotus shoes in the NMH Archives. Send me an email at sreid if you’re interested in seeing them.

[2] Alert readers may be reminded of an Object of the Month post from last year, a single Afghani boot. This is no coincidence. Both shoe and boot were found in the same box, and are likely from the same still-unidentified donor.

[3] Seagrave, S., & Seagrave, P. (1992). Dragon Lady: The Life and Legend of the Last Empress of China. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, p 30.

[4] Chang, J. (2013). Empress Dowager Cixi: The Concubine Who Launched Modern China. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, p. 3.

[5] Literally. While the young emperor sat on a throne in the council chamber, she sat behind a curtain behind the throne. Ibid., p. 56.

[6] Ibid., pp. 325-6.

[7] Chou, S. (2009). Manchu Horse-Hoof Shoes: Footwear and Cultural Identity. V&A Online Journal, 2.
Object of the Month #11: Roman, Reproduction, Forgery

Object of the Month #11
Roman, Reproduction, Forgery
Possible Roman Glass Unguentarium (2013.01.240)
November 2015

This glass vase might be almost 2,000 years old.

Or a reproduction.

Or a fake.

Found on a shelf in the archives without accompanying information, there’s no definitive answer. It could be almost two millennia old, but there’s nothing conclusive. And there’s the rub.

A Roman form called an unguentarium, this type of vase was sometimes used for storing perfume or cosmetics.[1] It is 18 cm tall (approximately 7”), completely intact without chips or breaks, transparent pale green, with a flared and flattened rim, and a tall, cylindrical neck above a bell-shaped body with a constriction where the neck and body join. The unguentarium was handblown, and there is a raised ring called a pontil mark on the underside indicating where the vase was once attached to the blowpipe.

The first time I saw this vase in the NMH Archives I was so surprised I nearly fell over.[2] Before working in the archives I was an archaeologist and one of my areas of specialization was the eastern Roman Empire, with a focus on glass production and trade. More specifically, I excavated in Petra, Jordan and cataloged what was largely a Romano-Byzantine glass corpus.[3] I’ve examined and recorded thousands of pieces of ancient glass, but never have I pulled an intact vessel, such as this, directly from the ground. To say I was excited to see this vase would be an understatement. But then I began to wonder, could this unguentarium really be “real,” or was it too good to be true?

What we do know is that this and other objects representing several centuries of Anatolian history were donated to the NMH Archives in 2011 by the grandson of Frank L. Duley.[4] Duley was the unguentarium’s original owner, and a graduate of Mount Hermon in 1893. He later taught at both Mount Hermon and Northfield before becoming the interim principal of the Northfield School for Girls in 1925. Before returning to teach, he lived and worked in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey).[5]

That Duley lived in Turkey is suggestive, and it is almost certain he acquired the unguentarium during his time there. It is of a style and shape that, if it were ancient, I would date to the 1st-3rd c. CE, maybe toward the latter half of that range. The vase would not have been out of place in Roman Anatolia.

So, having confirmed that: (a) the unguentarium is a recognizable Roman form, and (b) that Duley probably acquired it from an area where it could have originated, why do I hesitate to formally recognize it as Roman? The short answer is because it lacks context.[6] In archaeology, “context” refers to the relationship between an artifact and its physical find spot, and its relationship to other objects. Context can be invaluable for dating both artifacts and entire sites, as well as determining function. Ancient glass is immune to archaeometric dating methods such as radiocarbon dating, due to its low carbon content, and as a result benefits greatly when context is available.

When context is erased from an artifact, as it has been from this unguentarium, it becomes difficult if not impossible to discuss specifics. Not only don’t we know where this vase was found within the stratigraphy of an archaeological site, we don’t even know the location of the site (if it even came from one). We are left with a plausibly Roman glass form, and some intriguing hunches, but little in the way of definitive answers.[7]

Moving on from context for the moment, let’s run down some of the pros and cons for the three possibilities: Roman, reproduction, forgery. The lack of context is disappointing, but neither does it prove that the unguentarium isn’t Roman. To me, the greatest strike against it being authentic is how intact and relatively clean the vase is. Ancient glass is often some combination of friable, pitted, dirty, worn, broken, flaking, dull, and iridescent.[8] Aside from being ever so slightly iridescent, none of these features are represented by the NMH vase. Not only isn’t the vase particularly weathered, the pontil mark on the bottom is still sharp enough to cut. Staggeringly pristine pieces of ancient glass do exist, however, such as a 2nd c. CE bowl in the Israel Museum, so although the unguentarium’s excellent condition doesn’t rule out a Roman date, it does raise some red flags.

The important distinction between a fraud and a reproduction is that the former is intended to deceive, while the latter is put forward honestly. I don’t believe this unguentarium is a forgery, mostly because I just can’t imagine that someone attempting to defraud would pass up the chance to make it look at least a little more aged. If I wanted to make a modern vase look old, I’d fake at least a few of the weathering characteristics mentioned above; dirt at a bare minimum. This vase is so clean, that in fact, it’s the basis of much of my doubt about its age.

There are several good arguments in favor of it being a reproduction. As a reproduction, it would be acceptable, even desirable, for the vase to be perfectly clean and intact. The sharp pontil mark is no longer of concern if it’s a reproduction. You could imagine a modern glass artisan scrupulously reproducing an old Roman form. Its relatively small size would make it tourist-friendly as well.

And yet the unguentarium just seems so believably, authentically Roman. The light green color is accurate for the period, and the form and size ring true.[9] I have gone back and forth so many times about whether I think it’s more likely authentic, or a reproduction, that depending on what time of the day you ask me about it I might give you a different answer. Right now I’m leaning toward it being a reproduction; as an archaeologist it would be irresponsible to definitively call it authentic without much better evidence.

Mostly what this unguentarium teaches us is that context and documentation are paramount. Without it all we’re left with are educated guesses. It is possible to appreciate the vase and the skill of the glassblower, whether that glassblower was working a century ago or two millennia ago. It certainly deserves a place in the NMH Archives, not only because of its possible antiquity, but also because of its connection to Duley, an important and influential figure in the school’s history.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] Auth, Susan H. 1976. Ancient Glass at the Newark Museum. Newark, New Jersey: The Newark Museum, p. 114.

[2] This vase is actually one of a pair of unguentaria. The two are nearly identical, although the other one is a bit shorter.

[3] If you’re interested in hearing more about my archaeological research in Jordan or other places, I’m always happy to talk about it. Send me an email at sreid.

[4] Anatolia roughly corresponds to modern-day Turkey.

[5] Weis, Peter. "To Constantinople and Back." NMH Magazine 15.1 (2013): 16-17.

[6] It also lacks provenance, but that’s another column.

[7] Don’t loot, kids.

[8] Yes, glass can be both dull and iridescent at the same time. A lot depends on soil chemistry.

[9] Part of my research hinged on the change over time of glass color between the Roman and Byzantine periods, so I’m making a great effort here not to drown this post in details, but I will add that in order to make the glass anything but light green would take effort; this is just a default color, as it were.
Object of the Month #10: Entourage

Object of the Month #10
Ivory Processional Elephant (2013.01.232)
October 2015

It’s time for Monday Morning Meeting and people are trickling into the chapel.  Suddenly someone bursts in yelling, “Peter Fayroian’s riding an elephant!”  That would probably get your attention.  October’s Object of the Month isn’t just one person with an elephant; it’s an entourage.

 The ivory carving, only 13 cm tall (approximately 5”), depicts an Asian elephant on a plinth carrying a double-domed howdah, or litter, walking with his front right foot raised in mid-step.  A foot soldier walks in front of the elephant’s right side.  There are two passengers inside the howdah, and a mahout, or driver, in front.  In addition to the howdah, the elephant wears a headdress and caparison with detailed floral carvings.  Both elephant and soldier are attached to the plinth with small pegs that fit into corresponding holes.  A closer look at the plinth reveals four pairs of holes, one set at each corner.  The foot soldier fits most cleanly into the holes in the front right.  Three more soldiers almost certainly would have stood in each of the remaining three corners.  Several other parts of the model are also missing: a tassel from the elephant’s left ear, weaponry for the three missing soldiers, a spear carried in the extant foot soldier’s right hand, an object (perhaps a goad) held in the mahout’s right hand, and two finials on the top of the howdah.

The elephant model has ten component parts.  Interestingly, the pieces were not all found together, but rather, jumbled up with ivory fragments from several other tableaux, mixed between two separate packages.  All of the pieces were ultimately sorted into four separate groups: this elephant and howdah, a palanquin, a bullock cart, and one unknown item.[1]

All of the ivory probably came from the city of Murshidabad in India.  About a six hour drive north of Kolkata, it was once the capital of Bengal during the time of the Mughal dynasty, which ruled what is today much of northern India from the 16th to the 18th centuries.  Known for silk production as well as ivory carving, all of the ivory tableaux in the NMH Archives were probably carved in Murshidabad in the mid-19th century.

The elephant and the other ivory pieces may have been made for the tourist market, or for British expats working in India for the East India Company and then the subsequent British Raj.[2]  Popular carved ivory subjects of the time included palanquins, bullock carts, and processional elephants, all of which are represented in the ivories in the NMH collection.[3]

Perhaps an examination of the howdah’s passengers could help identify the intended audience for the piece.  If the passengers are clearly wearing European dress, it may indicate that the prospective market was also European.  As near as I can tell, however, the two passengers, the mahout, and the soldier are all at least superficially similar in appearance.  All four of them, for example, seem to have patronized the same hatter and the same barber (although I’m not positive that the two passengers also have mustaches).  These similarities don’t prove definitively that all four men are Indian, but it is suggestive and does raise the possibility that the original market for the piece may also have been Indian.

Elephants would have been a mode of transportation used on special occasions by Indian royalty, and perhaps the very wealthy.  Not surprisingly, after the British arrival on the subcontinent, British higher-ups adopted the custom as well.[4]  Regardless of the identification of the howdah’s passengers, they almost certainly would have been nobles or members of the upper classes.

At the time these carvings were made, the Victorian cabinet of curiosities aesthetic was in full swing, and decorative pieces like these would have been a natural fit displayed on mantels and shelves.  A picture of the “Matron’s Room” in Cottage IV taken in the late 19th century gives you a vague approximation of the style; filled cabinets (although in this case, with china rather than knick-knacks), and densely covered surfaces and walls.

 Unexpectedly, the ivory used in these carvings might be from African rather than Asian elephants.   Carved Asian ivory was more traditional in India until the 19th century, when African ivory gained in popularity because it was considered softer and easier to carve.  The relative hardness of Asian ivory, however, was prized in Japan, which meant that artisans were importing African ivory to India, while at the same time exporting Asian ivory to Japan.[5]

International laws have banned the international trade of ivory since 1990 in order to protect endangered elephant populations.  Within the United States the sale of ivory across state lines has been severely limited since 1982.  Even though there are legal means to sell and transport antique ivory, such as this piece, provenance can be hard to prove, which means it is likely the NMH ivory came here before the 1980s, and I would even guess some decades before that.

If you’ve been a regular reader of the Object of the Month columns, you won’t be surprised to learn that we know next to nothing about how the ivory came to be here.  No donor’s name is attached to it, nor do we know when it was donated.  All four ivory groupings are still incomplete, with obvious missing pieces.  As for all unsourced objects in the NMH Archives, a missionary origin is certainly possible, but far from proven at this point.  As always, I am hopeful that answers are waiting in the next unopened box.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] There was one other piece found in the assemblage, a flat ivory stick, that belonged to none of these four groupings.  It turned out to be a piece of decorative edging for a carved wooden box, found months earlier in a completely different part of the archives.  This has me wondering if the box and ivory carvings are related by donor, place of origin, or some other common ground.

[2] For another example of art produced for the tourist market, see the Object of the Month #1.2.

[3] Nandi, S. (1969). Art of Ivory in Murshidābād. Indian Museum Bulletin, IV(1), pp. 95, 97.

[4] I, for one, can’t think of a better way to say, “I’m here and I’m important!” than traveling by elephant.

[5] Barbier, E. B., Burgess, J. C., Swanson, T. M., & Pearce, D. W. (1990). Elephants, Economics and Ivory. London: Earthscan Publications Ltd., p. 69.
Object of the Month #9: Found, Captured, or Stolen

Object of the Month #9
Found, Captured, or Stolen
Antique Pastiche Flintlock Pistol (2013.01.214)
September 2015

Ever have a conversation with a toddler? There’s an almost total inability to stay on topic.  Sometimes, working with the realia can be like that.[1] Boxes are filled with non sequiturs; a single chopstick, a confused scale model of an Oxford University punt, a wooden thing that might be a 19th century hat stretcher.[2] Usually there’s no accompanying information.  A group of objects may be from the same donor, but they may not. They might be from the same place, but they’re usually not.

Occasionally, however, an object turns up with a bit more: the name of a donor, a definitive place of origin, a faded but semi-legible description of what the heck it is. And very, very rarely (a grand total of once in my experience so far) an object surfaces with what amounts to a detailed biography. This Object of the Month is it.

This is a beautifully and ornately decorated late 18th century flintlock pistol, found in the archives along with two typewritten pages laying out a detailed history, but leaving only tantalizing clues about its presence at NMH. The pistol’s “biography” comes to us courtesy of David Cobb (the pistol’s discoverer and Mount Hermon English teacher), Robert Abels (renowned antique weapons expert), Arthur Kiendl (head of school), and Paul Bowman[3] (Mount Hermon chemistry teacher and first school archivist, aka “The Mighty Molecule”).

The pistol’s basic timeline at NMH is as follows. In the mid-late 1960s, Cobb found the pistol in a box in the North Crossley attic, and sent it to Abels for appraisal. Abels returned it to Cobb, who typed up the accompanying notes based on Abels’ assessment, and forwarded both pistol and notes to Kiendl in 1968. In 1971 Kiendl sent the whole thing to Bowman in the archives. Last spring, over forty years later, I found the pistol and notes wrapped in wads of tissue paper in the bottom of a box.

What on earth was a two hundred year old firearm doing in the Crossley attic? Actually, the answer to this one might not be too complicated, if still a little weird. Did you know that there was both a varsity riflery team and a club at Mount Hermon in the mid- to late-1960s? Over the few years of their existence they practiced in several locations: the general vicinity of Snow House, the old pool below James Gym [4], and in the attic of Crossley.[5] In addition to teaching English, Cobb also happened to be the varsity team coach.

Cobb’s letter to Kiendl includes a wealth of expert information from Abels about the pre-NMH history of the pistol. He writes:
This antique flintlock handgun is … a mongrel. The firing mechanism dates from the mid-eighteenth century, and is of European— probably French—origin, having been originally the firing mechanism for a heavy musket, undoubtedly a military weapon. Found, captured, or stolen by the Turks in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, very possibly during the war against Napoleon (1798), the musket was cannibalized to make this handgun. Perhaps because the musket was damaged, but more likely because the Turks preferred handguns to long firearms, the firing mechanism … was removed and combined with a handgun stock, probably also European, but extensively modified and ornamented (with filed nail studs and brass) by the Turks. The barrel is probably from a Turkish handgun … [T]he craftsmanship is primitive and is therefore probably the work not of a professional gunsmith but of an ordinary soldier for whom it was a labor of love… The mechanism is simple and efficient, but although it is handsomely modified into a handgun, the stock is much too light for it and the barrel is too short and light, and consequently it is a miserably ineffective and inaccurate weapon, a consideration which was probably secondary … [T]his weapon would be extremely unreliable and inaccurate at ranges exceeding ten yards.[6]
I would add two points to Abels and Cobb’s description. The weapon is heavy; over one kilogram (almost 2½  lbs.). Holding it at arm’s length for any length of time while trying to aim would not be easy. Cobb also removed a few damaged parts of the pistol at some point, rendering it inoperable.[7]

Napoleon wanted to control the lucrative trade routes to India in order to cut off British access. In 1798 he led a major French campaign against the Ottoman Turks to take the eastern Mediterranean. Opposed by the Ottomans and British, Napoleon suffered a disastrous defeat in Syria. It is likely that the weapon fell into Turkish hands at this time.

How did a modified French musket end up at NMH in the first place, let alone in such an out-of-the-way location? Not unusually for realia in the archives, this is still a complete unknown. That the pistol was found in one of the places where the riflery team used to practice is evocative, but far from conclusive. The ways in which various objects in the archives relate to each other is not always obvious at first, but sometimes connections become clear over time, linking one seeming non sequitur to another.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] For a brief introduction to realia, see the first ever Object of the Month column from last October.

[2] If you’re interested in seeing any of these objects send me an email at sreid, but honestly, the chopstick isn’t worth it.

[3] If you’ve stopped by Craig Hefner’s office, you might recognize Bowman’s name from the plaque on the door, dedicating the room as a chemistry library in his honor.

[4] Seriously. They had practices and meets down in the old, drained pool. A low ceiling was constructed over the deck, meaning that in the shallow end it wouldn’t have been possible to stand upright.

[5] Can you imagine how loud it must have been in the fourth floor dorm rooms during practice?

[6] Cobb, D. Letter to Art Kiendl. 24 Mar. 1968. MS. NMH Archives, Gill, MA.

[7] Ibid.
Object of the Month #8: A Fan Leads to Love

Object of the Month #8
A Fan Leads to Love
Signed Japanese Fan from The Mikado (2013.01.191)
May 2015

Have you ever made fun of a “Grand Poohbah”? Do you think “the punishment should fit the crime”? If so, you have referred to The Mikado, Gilbert and Sullivan’s Victorian-era comic opera. The Mikado is set in a semi-imaginary feudal Japan, which gave its creators latitude in satirizing contemporary British government and politics. The plot is incredibly convoluted, making a concise synopsis near impossible, but let’s just say that it involves red tape, executioners, royalty in mufti, and love.

If you have seen a production of The Mikado, you may remember a rather exuberant use of folding fans throughout, snapping open and closed smartly in time with the music and lyrics. Which brings us to the last Object of the Month for the school year, a prop fan from the 1962 Northfield Schools production of The Mikado, signed by over fifty members of the cast.[1]

The fan was made in Japan, and has a hand painted paper leaf with a gold band along the top edge, a blue field on the left, red on the right, and green ombré in the center. Flowers, a butterfly, and white blossoms decorate the recto, or front side, while the verso is plain. The sticks and guards are lightweight wood painted black. Four of the sticks and the rightmost guard are broken near the fan’s metal rivet, preventing it from being fully opened. When intact, its maximum open width would have been 70 cm (almost 28”). All of the signatures are on the recto except two on the verso. Also written on the verso is “THE MIKADO June 1962.”

The fun part of researching this fan was getting in touch with the cast members and hearing their memories of the production. Louise Cole Nicollet ’62 wrote, “I didn’t have a lead role (I was a young Japanese girl in the chorus), but remember it so well and so fondly!”[2] Tony Cantore ’65 was a member of the Coolie Crew, on stage in full costume and makeup, responsible for moving props and scenery during the performance. He wrote, “Once Mr. Raymond[3] heard my off-key singing, he instructed me to mouth the words, but not to sing any of the songs!”[4] Blanche Houseknecht ‘62 was Pitti-Sing, one of the three little maids, and wrote, “how shocked we three little maids were when we heard the real tempo of the opening number for the first time, and how we struggled to keep up with the pace.”[5]

Folding fans, like this one, were an important part of the production and were used by the whole cast from the start of rehearsals. Eric Erlandsen ‘63 wrote, “The size of the fan indicated the rank the individual had within the fictional Japanese town of Titipu. Except for the Mikado [the emperor] himself, my character Pooh-Bah… would have had the largest. They made a fine ‘snap’ when opened with vigor, and this could be used to drive a point.”[6] Kathie Urion Krashinski ’62 added, “We practiced opening those fans in one quick motion and in a way that had them in exactly the right position many times.”[7] We even have a clue from Tom French ‘63 about how this fan in the archives may have been damaged. He wrote, “more than one of us managed to snap the fan open and manage[d] to break it… Many were kept together with tape for the course of the rehearsals, but we were issued new perfect fans for the dress rehearsal and performance.”[8]

For some members of the cast, the play’s performance so close to commencement meant that its memory would always be associated with the end of an era. French added, “The graduation weekend performances were a time of very high and immediate exuberation, fueled by the excitement of the play, the passing of final exams and academic freedom, the expectations of graduation and moving forward to college, and, maybe most important, an almost overbearing nostalgia for being at the schools and knowing that this chapter of living was about to end.”[9]

For several cast members, including Erlandsen, Bob Haslun ‘63, and Lucinda Kidder ’62, performing in The Mikado was the beginning of a life in the arts.[10] Haslun wrote, “It was that production that led to my 52 summers of producing music theatre in Falmouth, MA.”[11]

Perhaps the most memorable story from the 1962 production of The Mikado is best introduced by the line from the opera, “For he’s gone and married Yum-Yum.” At the 50th reunion for the class of 1962, members of the cast got together and sang through the production. In the opera, young lovers Yum-Yum and Nanki Poo (the son of the Mikado) marry, providing a happy ending. Karen Ann Zee ‘62 (Yum-Yum) and Eric Riedel ‘62 (Nanki Poo’s understudy and member of the Chorus of Lords) dated as students, but went their separate ways after graduation. They reconnected at the reunion, and married in 2014 with several members of the cast in attendance. Riedel ended his retelling of this story by writing, “The best part of all of this is that while I never got to play the lead in our production, I ultimately ‘got the girl.’”[12]

Ripples from The Mikado spread long after the final curtain dropped that June over fifty years ago. The signatures are what make the fan special, instead of just a pretty object. It becomes a unique record that marked not only the completion of a major production, but the end of high school for most of the cast. The Mikado touched the lives of many at the Northfield Schools; fifty years from now, in 2065, how will NMH still be affecting your life?

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] The Mikado was a huge production, involving an additional two hundred people beyond the main cast.

[2] L.C. Nicollet, personal communication, 7 May 2015.

[3] Albert Raymond was the musical director for The Mikado. Raymond Hall in the RAC is named for him and his wife, Virginia.

[4] T. Cantore, personal communication, 7 May 2015.

[5] B. Houseknecht, personal communication, 8 May 2015.

[6] E. Erlandsen, personal communication, 7 May 2015.

[7] K.U. Krashinski, personal communication, 9 May 2015.

[8] T. French, personal communication, 7 May 2015.

[9] T. French, personal communication, 9 May 2015.

[10] E. Erlandsen, personal communication, 7 May 2015. B. Haslun, personal communication, 8 May 2015. L. Kidder, personal communication, 7 May 2015.

[11] B. Haslun, personal communication, 8 May 2015. Haslun and his wife, Ursula, are co-producers of the College Light Opera Company.

[12] E. Riedel, personal communication, 11 May 2015.
Object of the Month #7: Tea Under Lock and Key

Object of the Month #7
Tea Under Lock and Key
Chinese Tea Caddy (2013.01.159)
April 2015

It’s Thursday morning, and you’re going to be late if you don’t get a move on. There’s just enough time for a quick run to Alumni Hall. You find your favorite mug and grab a tea bag, which you unfortunately rip open in your haste. Crumbled tea leaves dust your pancakes. After a quick clean up you try again, carefully. Tea and breakfast inhaled in record time, you hurtle across campus to class.

Tea hasn’t always been considered so disposable, though, and at times in the past it has been an expensive luxury. In parts of the world today, including Japan, Great Britain, much of the Middle East, and China, tea is still enjoyed with some ceremony rather than tossed back on the fly.

Which brings us to this month’s object, a 19th-20th century pewter Chinese box for holding loose tea, called a tea caddy. The rectangular caddy is 23 cm wide (9”) with canted corners, and a hinged, coffered lid. The box is ornately engraved with flowers and vines, as well as urns on the front and side panels. The four corner panels are engraved in Chinese. Attached to the front of the lid is a hasp, although the corresponding staple and lock are missing. Fish-shaped knobs have been soldered onto the sides of the box. The caddy is mounted on a pierced, foliate base, with eight fluted bun feet. Inside are two separate compartments with their own lids. Inside both compartments is a small amount of dust, probably tea leaves. The caddy is intact, but has several dents and dings.

Another look provides more information about the box itself, the people that used it, and the culture in which it was created. Note that the caddy was once lockable, which suggests its contents were considered valuable enough to keep secured. The detailed decoration reinforces this message of worth. The fish knobs on the sides of the box, which obscure some of the engraving, appear to have replaced an earlier set of handles, suggesting the caddy saw regular use and was repaired as necessary.

But how can we know this box was meant for tea, and not something of more obvious value, such as jewelry? This is where a detailed inspection pays off. A closer look at the Chinese engraving and the iconography turns out to be quite telling.

The four corner panels of the caddy are engraved with traditional Chinese characters.[1] Meant to be read in pairs, the front two panels make one set of couplets, and the back two another. The front panels discuss water, dew, and snow, and how brewing tea can comfort and purify a heart. The couplet on the back panels identifies the human needs for both solitude and company, with the one part praising peaceful solitude, and the other encouraging the reader to enjoy the seasons with friends.

The iconography used on the caddy is significant as well. In Chinese the word for fish is a homophone of the word for surplus, making the fish an auspicious symbol. On the front panel (and possibly on the side panels as well, if you could see behind the fish) is a large urn with a flower visible inside. Vessels like this, often arranged with floating lotus blossoms, could be found at the entrances of palaces and wealthier homes, and would suggest prosperity.

What is perhaps the most suggestive piece of iconography can be found inside the caddy. The lids of the two internal compartments have knobs in the shape of stylized, seated lions. A lion, called suan ni,[2] is one of the nine sons of the dragon in Chinese mythology. The dragon’s sons, not necessarily dragons themselves, embody different characteristics and tend to be depicted in specific contexts. Suan ni likes sitting and observing, and is associated with steam and incense. Its presence on a tea caddy seems well within suan ni’s domain.

It seems likely that an elaborate tea caddy such as this one would have been owned by a family of some means. At the very least it could convey a desire for that kind of status even if not yet achieved. Simultaneously, the caddy also confers value upon the tea inside. Although the tea was precious, it would have been prepared and drunk regularly.

How this caddy came to be in the archives isn’t clear, although the donor was probably a 1910 Northfield Seminary student named Bessie M. Hille. In 1913 she traveled to Shanghai as a missionary, and worked there until 1943 when she was taken prisoner by the Japanese army. Hille was released to U.S. custody eight months later.[3] While it would be interesting to know for certain whether Hille was the donor, and how the tea caddy came to be on the other side of the globe, for now we’ll have to content ourselves with what we have been able to learn from the box itself.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] Many thanks to Diana (Tingxuan) Zhu ’16 for her help with this section. Any and all mistakes are my own.

[2] Yu-Gi-Oh! players might be familiar with the “Suanni, Fire of the Yang Zing” card.

[3] Engel, H. and M. Smiley, Eds. (2013). Remarkable Women in New York State History. Charleston, SC, The History Press, p. 132.
Object of the Month #6: A Made Up Monogram

Object of the Month #6
A Made Up Monogram
Ottoman Wrapping Cloth (Bohça) (2013.01.152)
March 2015

This month we have what on first glance appears to be simply a scarf. It’s quite pretty, if faded and stained, with ornate off-white floral embroidery outlined in dark brown, on a tan ground. The cloth and embroidery are stable, with only minor fraying. It certainly looks old, but what else is there really to say about it?

And then you realize that the embroidery was done by hand. And that the brown outlines were executed in now-tarnished metallic thread, possibly real gold or silver. And that the elaborate designs in the corners aren’t curlicues, but highly stylized Arabic script (called a tughra, more on that below). What was once only a monochromatic scarf has become something intriguing that raises several questions.

The scarf is square with hand-sewn rolled hems, approximately 66 cm (26”) on a side.  The base fabric is undyed Z-spun linen in a balanced plain weave with occasional slubs.  The off-white embroidery thread is probably silk.  When examined with a microscope, you can see the construction of the metallic thread.  It has a pale silk core wrapped with a very narrow strip of metal, only a fraction of a millimeter wide.  Today the metal is tarnished, but in some places the original brightness shines through.  Gold doesn’t tarnish, and there are none of the green highlights you might expect from copper, so it’s most likely silver.  The embroidery is all chain stitched.  Chain stitching is a non-reversible stitch, meaning that the scarf has a distinct front and back.

 The scarf has a stylized floral design, with the exception of the script in the corners. The design includes roses, leaves, and palmate forms, possibly in the saz style, introduced to the Ottomans in the 16th century. The layout consists of a central medallion surrounded by a floral border with a single tughra in each corner, all identical. The embroidery shows reflection symmetry across vertical, horizontal, and diagonal axes, with the exception of the tughras, which instead exhibit 4-fold rotational symmetry. There are some minor variations in the embroidery, with the occasional missing petal and the like, but on the whole the symmetry is pretty exact. A very close inspection, especially of the tughras, reveals small areas where the embroidery infilling appears incomplete.

The tughras are so abstract that it took some time before I recognized them as writing. Essentially a very ornate Arabic monogram, tughras were used by the sultans of the Ottoman Empire. For example, 16th century Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s tughra reads, “Suleiman, son of Selim Khan, ever victorious.” This formula, more or less, was used in all sultanic tughras. I had hoped to translate the NMH tughras to get a handle on the date of the scarf, only to discover they might not mean anything at all.

While I could identify a few individual letters and numbers (including “0125,” ٠١٢٥, at the center right, to which I still haven’t been able to assign any significance), I needed an expert to make sense of the whole thing. I contacted a modern tughra design company, and was surprised to learn that although the word for victorious (“muzaffer,” مظفر) might be present, the rest is probably decorative gibberish.

It’s also not really a scarf. It’s likely something called a bohça, a piece of fabric used as a wrapper to protect linens and clothing, and a common part of an Ottoman woman’s trousseau. This helps explain the elaborate decoration, because bohças, “exhibited the wealth of the bride and her family and her skill as en embroiderer.”[1] The metallic thread, as discussed above, as well as the tughras (even though only decorative) would have also implied wealth and status.

Wrapped in the bohça was a yellowed piece of index card reading, “Shawl over 100 years old, from / Near East, not China.” Assuming this is accurate, and conservatively guessing the card is from no later than 1980, the bohça would have a terminus ante quem of 1880 (i.e., made no later than 1880). My suspicion is that it may be several decades older. Unfortunately, we have no additional information about its origin or donor.

It’s very tempting to try to link the bohça to an alumnus/a, especially one living in Turkey in the mid-20th century. There are even a few reasonable candidates. However, the vagueness of the accompanying card is problematic. If you believe the donor personally procured the object at its place of origin, you would expect narrower identification than just “Near East, not China.” However, it is plausible to imagine the child of an alumnus/a knowing little of its origin, and donating it after his or her death, thus erasing previously known context.

These gaps in our knowledge aside, that’s not a bad account for a scarf that didn’t initially seem like it had much to say. If you’re interested in learning more about the NMH bohça, or hearing a more speculative hypothesis about the tughras, I hope you will come visit the Archives.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] Krody, S. B. (2000). Flowers of Silk and Gold: Four Centuries of Ottoman Embroidery. London, Merrel: in association with the Textile Museum, Washington DC, p. 72.
Object of the Month #5: Cubism Shows Us the Way

Object of the Month #5
Cubism Shows Us the Way
Tribute to Joaquín Rodrigo Sculpture (2013.01.155)
February 2015

This month we have a small cubist sculpture called Tribute to Joaquín Rodrigo by the Spanish artist, Pablo Serrano. It’s a beautiful little sculpture, only 14 cm tall (about 5½”) including the hollow base. The base appears to have a block of wood inside, the bottom of which is covered with black velvet or some other flocked textile.

Pablo Picasso and the French artist, Georges Braque, are credited with pioneering cubism during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Cubism is associated with the abstraction of objects, breaking them down and reassembling them as cubes and other geometric shapes and planes, often depicting the subject simultaneously from several angles. Initially identified with painting, cubism began to influence sculpture and sculptors as well, including Jaques Lipchitz, Modigliani, and Pablo Serrano, among many others.

This cubist bronzed sculpture depicts a man playing a guitar. When I look at it, I see the guitar itself pretty clearly, as well as the man’s head, but the rest of it is a little more difficult. You, of course, may see it differently. And this is where the abstraction of cubism comes into play. Serrano was a talented artist; if he had wanted to sculpt a proportionally realistic man with a guitar he was certainly capable. But this sculpture we see in the photo, this is how he chose to present his particular vision as inspired by Joaquín Rodrigo.

Very helpfully, this piece is actually signed. “Serrano 19/75” is etched on the bottom edge of the proper right, indicating that this is the nineteenth copy produced in a run of 75. From there it was relatively simple to find Pablo Serrano, the artist. Serrano was born in 1908 in Crivillén, about four hours west-southwest of Barcelona. He studied in Barcelona, and later emigrated to Argentina and then Uruguay, returning to Spain in the 1950s. Shortly after Serrano’s return, one of his pieces won the Grand Prix for Sculpture at the Hispano American Biennial of Art in Barcelona, one of many prizes awarded to his works in Europe and the Americas. In the U.S. some of the places you can see his sculptures are the Guggenheim, the Museum of Modern Art, the Hirshhorn, Brown University, and now, NMH.

In the early 1980s, near the end of his life, Serrano created this sculpture in honor of the Spanish composer, Joaquín Rodrigo. Rodrigo was blind from the age of three after contracting diphtheria and wrote his compositions in Braille, later transcribed. Rodrigo’s most famous work was Concierto de Aranjuez, written in 1939 for guitar and orchestra, which Serrano commemorated here.

I haven’t been able to identify a candidate for the earliest version of this work, although it is certain that the NMH sculpture could not have been the original. There are references to many other different variations and sizes of the sculpture on both sides of the Atlantic. There are several in Spain, including at least five in the collection of the Pablo Serrano Museum in Zaragoza (two plaster casts, one bronze of unknown size, one bronze about three times the size of the NMH sculpture, and one monumental sculpture), another at Rodrigo’s tomb in Aranjuez near Toledo, and yet another in the town of Elche near the southeast coast. There are also the 75 smaller casts, of which the NMH piece is one. It is quite likely that there are others.

The NMH sculpture was discovered in the archives of Dolben Library on the Northfield campus without any accompanying information about the donor, although we can still broadly deduce when it was donated. It could not have arrived here before it was made, probably about 1985. And, because it was rediscovered in Northfield, it is unlikely that it arrived here after 2005 when NMH consolidated on the Mount Hermon campus in Gill. This gives us a rather large range of twenty years, but at the moment that’s all we have to go on. More information may surface in the future.

There is yet one more version of the Tribute to Joaquín Rodrigo that is worth mentioning here. This one, in plaster and quite a bit larger than the NMH sculpture, was exhibited at the Guggenheim in 1985 as part of an exhibit called Pablo Serrano: The Guitar and Cubism. In the introduction to the associated exhibition catalog is a poem written by Serrano himself, so perhaps the best way to close this Object of the Month is with a few of his own words:
Cubism shows us the way,
to destroy in order to construct,
Mankind as well as Nature
appear and disappear.[1]

Assistant Archivist
Sara Karz Reid


[1] Serrano, P. and the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum (1985). Pablo Serrano: The Guitar and Cubism: Exhibition, 18 September-10 November 1985, Guggenheim Museum. New York, NY, Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum.
Object of the Month #4: The Famous Ira David Sankey

Object of the Month #4
The Famous Ira David Sankey
Staffordshire Figure of Sankey (2013.01.039)
January 2015

Ira David Sankey “has made the town of Edenburg [Pennsylvania] famous, and millions will hear of it, because of their interest in him as Mr. Moody’s associate whose songs of grace and salvation are ringing round the world."[1] You have heard of Ira David Sankey, haven’t you? No? As we approach Founder’s Day, let’s step away from D.L. Moody briefly and introduce the man whose music helped Moody evangelize on both sides of the Atlantic.

January’s Object of the Month is a pottery statue of Sankey from England, known as a Staffordshire figure. The figure is 35 cm tall (almost 14”) and made of glazed creamware, standing right arm akimbo, left hand resting on a book (presumably the Bible). Sporting a tidy set of muttonchops, he is wearing a black frock coat and trousers, and a white waistcoat and bow tie. The figure is a flatback, meaning that its rarely displayed back side was produced with minimal detail. “SANKEY” has been molded in relief into the base and painted gold. I have found references to Sankey and Moody figures in two different sizes,[2] although interestingly this Sankey represents a possibly unrecorded third. There is no maker’s mark, although it is likely from the Sampson Smith factory.[3]

Staffordshire figures were produced in Staffordshire County in central England, about three hours northwest of London. The area has been known for its pottery since the 18th century, especially the collectible figures marketed to the middle and lower classes. Sold almost exclusively in England, they were never exported in great quantities. The figures were made by pressing clay into molds, and were then glazed and fired.

Now we need to backtrack slightly and talk more about Ira David Sankey. Born in 1840, he was drawn to both Methodism and music, and directed several choirs. Fatefully, in 1870 he attended a revival in Indianapolis and was noticed by a rather frustrated D.L. Moody. Moody was:
inwardly chafing over the slow formalism of the occasions, and especially was annoyed by the dull singing. When an opportunity came Mr. Sankey started a grand hymn and poured out voice and heart and soul through the words, and caused a thrill of enthusiasm to run over the assembly… Mr. Moody rushed up to the stranger and eagerly inquired about him, and announced [that] … he must give up all and come with him.[4]
A brown wax cylinder recording of Sankey singing “The Ninety and Nine” with gusto, one of his most popular hymns, survives today. You can hear for yourself the voice Moody found so captivating.

Moody must have been very persuasive, because in short order Sankey joined him in Chicago. In the spring of 1873 they sailed for England, invited to preach there by three gentlemen (two of whom died before their arrival). There was no advance publicity, and no-one else expecting them. Their first meetings were sparsely attended. Surprisingly, this inauspicious beginning ended with smashing success. By the end of the tour thousands of people were crowding auditoriums to hear them speak and sing.[5]

This success led to publication of the bestseller, Moody & Sankey Gospel Hymns. East Hall and Stone Hall at Northfield, and Recitation Hall at Mount Hermon are said to have been “sung up” from just some the royalties. The $106,000 spent on these buildings[6] would be worth upwards of two million today.

And this is where Sankey, Moody, and pottery intersect. As revivalists, Sankey and Moody would have been interested in reaching the same, general audience that found Staffordshire figures so collectible. Their tour of England would have been known to the Staffordshire potters, who hastily added figures of both men to their repertoire. The tour made the two men almost instant celebrities, represented in clay and displayed on mantels across England as mementos and/or inspirations.

We don’t know how this particular Sankey came to be in the archives, but he was probably bought in England, along with a matching Moody figure. There are several Moody figures at the Birthplace, and maybe others undiscovered on campus. Among them is almost certainly a 35 cm tall Moody.

So on Founder’s Day when D.L. Moody’s memory is foremost, think of Ira David Sankey as well. Without him, Moody might not have reached such a large, international audience. At one time he and Moody were presented to the English public as a pair of equals through the medium of pottery.

Sara Karz Reid
Assistant Archivist


[1] Goodspeed, E. J., Rev. (1876). The Wonderful Career of Moody and Sankey in Great Britain and America. New York, Henry S. Goodspeed & Company, 45.

[2] Pugh, P. D. G. (1970). Staffordshire Portrait Figures and Allied Subjects of the Victorian Era. London, Barrie & Jenkins, 392-3.

[3] Ibid., 13.

[4] Goodspeed, 50-1.

[5] Ibid., 60, 214.

[6] Carter, B. (1976). So Much to Learn. Mount Hermon, Mass., Northfield Mount Hermon School, 263, 266.