A house of learning, past and present.
A 1904 booklet on Stenton includes a description of the rooms as well as photographs and sketches illustrating the rooms of the house. Particularly the view of the dining room (Figure 1), with its light floorboards suggests that the Dames had not yet stained Stenton’s floors dark at this point in time. The booklet also tells us that all the woodwork in the house was painted white in this earliest period. The Minutes of the Committee on Historic Houses reveal that the walls were whitewashed as they had always been. Sheer white muslin curtains that cover only the window sashes appear in all the views in the booklet with the exception of the dining room. The overall effect of these early interiors was of general whiteness broken up by dark wood furniture and rugs. The stairway was dressed with an oriental carpet runner and a small rug at the bottom of the stair. Rugs on the floors also completed the furnishing of the two front “parlors.”
Ahead of Their Time: 1899 – 1939 (Part I)
Stenton has never been a static historic house museum. Since The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania opened Stenton to the public on May 23, 1900, the group has been committed to the notion that there is always room for improvement in the furnishing of Stenton. Throughout the one hundred years that the Dames have administered the site, they have changed and rearranged the rooms to keep pace with the times and to offer the public an increasingly accurate view of history.
From 1899 to the 1920s, Mary Chew (1839-1927), Mrs. Samuel Chew of Cliveden, led the cause to restore Stenton and operate it as a public museum so that the house could function as “an historic object lesson.” The earliest views of the Stenton rooms indicate that the house was furnished somewhat randomly with old furniture of various styles to achieve the same generic old-fashioned feel that many of the Colonial Dames who owned inherited antique furniture would have lived with in their own homes.
The Minute Book of the Committee on Historic Houses, kept by Mary Chew, does not include many details about the acquisition of furniture for Stenton in the early years of its operation as a Museum. The restoration of the house, supervised by architect Walter Cope, is covered in greater depth. The photographs and line drawings made from photographs in the 1904 booklet indicate that the Dames had begun soliciting loans and donations of furniture from Logan descendants. As an example, the Logan settee, or “sofa” as it was then called, loaned by Horace J. Smith in June 1901 and now in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was in the “North Parlor.” Algernon Sydney Logan and Maria Dickinson Logan, a Colonial Dame and Logan descendant, also contributed objects. Very few objects were outright gifts to the Dames in the early years. The Object Log, which includes objects from 1900-1910, recorded the name of the object, its owner, the date it was brought to Stenton and any historical notes. The Dames owned only 27 out of the 174 objects recorded. The majority of the objects owned by the Dames were images of historic landmarks and copies of old documents, rather than the actual furnishings of the house.
By 1915, the Dames’ collection had begun to grow. In the same year, Logan descendant Samuel Betton bequeathed 22 objects, and a number of the furnishings owned by Maria Dickinson Logan were cataloged as if owned by the Dames, although they were not officially part of the Dames’ collection until Maria’s death in 1939. Miss Ella Parsons loaned the largest quantity of objects, 31 of 55, mostly furniture. Her name does not appear in the 1900-1910 Object Log; however, she was the owner of the majority of the loaned furniture at Stenton in 1915. The 1915 Loans Log is typed, and at a later date, someone typed “Returned” next to all of Miss Parsons’ loans.
Photographs and views of Stenton from the early 20th century suggest that the earliest interpretive focus of the house combined an emphasis on understanding the decorative arts with a display of old-time relics, prints and photographs. The line drawing of the dining room in the 1904 booklet (Figure 2) was certainly made from Philip B. Wallace’s photograph of the same image. Mounted on the wall over the Maria Dickinson Logan sideboard are three images of buildings, including Mount Vernon. The inclusion of an image of George Washington’s home at Stenton shows that the Dames were very much aware of the successes of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association and wanted to preserve Stenton in the same vein.
Photographer Charles Pancoast took a number of images in 1912, which provide further information about Stenton’s interior decoration. White woodwork, white sheer curtains and oriental carpets are staples of these earliest Stenton views. A 1912 view of the north parlor (Figure 3) shows that the built-in decorative cupboard was apparently fitted with interior glass doors in addition to the original solid paneled doors as part of the Dames restoration. The cupboard displays mismatched porcelain and earthenware of various periods. The same oriental carpet as shown in a Wallace 1904 image of the parlor remained on the floor. A child-sized rocking chair with printed floral upholstery, two splat-back side chairs and a round tea table complete the view of the room. The fireplace tiles are not the same as those in the fireplace today. The James Logan fire back is in the fireplace.
A 1912 Pancoast view of the Stenton dining room shows many of the same furnishings as those in the 1904 image. The Maria Dickinson Logan sideboard and knife boxes, the images on the wall over the sideboard, the Colonial Revival splat-back chairs with straight legs, rush seats, and Chippendale “ears,” the federal-style drop leaf table and the leather upholstered Victorian-era sofa remained in the room. The view shows one of the two stoves installed by the Dames to heat Stenton, and the additions of an oriental carpet placed centrally in the room and printed straight panel curtains at the windows.
Another Pancoast image, from c. 1918 (Figure 4), clearly shows the south parlor (now the Office) as a reception and visitor orientation room. Neoclassical black, rush-seated fancy chairs from Maria Dickinson Logan as well as a Chippendale style chair from her collection comprise the seating furniture. On the “pie-crust” tea table is a small floral arrangement in a glass and literature for visitors, including the 1904 pamphlet, which cost 25 cents. The photographs and prints propped and hung about the room were certainly used to orient the visitor to Stenton and the Logan family. A large photograph of a woman, probably a Logan descendant, is set on the card table. Above it is a reproduction print of William Penn’s Treaty with the Indians by Benjamin West. Another framed print, on the wall to the right of the desk is of a small 1899 sketch of the Stenton landscape by L.H. Jamison. Framed as a triptych are engravings of 18th-century personalities. A photograph of Native Americans rests on the corner shelf.
Charles Pancoast photographed Stenton at least twice, c. 1911-12 and c. 1918. A view of the Parlor cupboard, which was also made into a postcard by the Colonial Dames, is copyrighted 1918. The cupboard is shown with both sets of doors open. The carved shell in the top of the cupboard was painted a dark color in this later view. The 1918 image of the cupboard also displays a more cohesive collection of blue-and-white Chinese export porcelain, recently deaccessioned. Pancoast’s camera also captured the edge of a slip seat from the splat back chairs with straight Marlborough-style legs seen in other views of the parlor as well as the very edge of the leather-covered C-scroll arm of the Logan settee, indicating that the settee remained in the Stenton parlor at least through 1918.
Pancoast also photographed portions of the second floor rooms including the north bedroom. The north bedroom, now the White Lodging Room, was a blue-and-white room, with blue rag rugs, cradle rug, and white walls and bed and window hangings. The only major difference between Pancoast’s photograph and the description of objects is the bed valance, which according to the inventory had ball fringe to match the curtains.
The other second floor image by Pancoast is a 1912 view looking to the north through the large folding doors between the two largest rooms in the house, which span the entire front of Stenton (Figure 5). A harpsichord is at the far north end of the image. Side chairs of various styles and centuries are placed around the spaces. Eighteenth-century pierced-splat Chippendale-style chairs mingle with rush-seated Nineteenth-century Hitchcock-type fancy chairs and a Rococo Revival-style chair. A combination of rag rugs and oriental carpets on the floor, no curtains at the windows, an image of probably Independence Hall over the harpsichord, and a framed Declaration of Independence surrounded by portraits to the right of the folding doors complete the room.
A set of photographs of Stenton taken by Philip B. Wallace was published in 1922 in the Year Book of the Twenty Fifth Annual Architectural Exhibition. In 1931, Wallace again published the majority of these images in his book Colonial Houses, Pre-Revolutionary Period, Philadelphia. Some of the images in the 1931 book appear to be the same as those inthe 1904 pamphlet about Stenton. It would seem that Mr. Wallace photographed Stenton at least twice if not more frequently between 1904 and 1922. Two factors distinguish the two distinct decorating campaigns represented in the Wallace photographs. The first is window dressings. The earlier images show white sheer curtains that just cover the window sashes. The later images show fuller, longer white sheers, which hang down to the level of the window seats in those rooms that have them, and include a straight ruffled valance across the top. The second factor distinguishing the two decorating campaigns is floor coverings. The earliest images of the first floor stair hall and south parlor show oriental carpets on the floors. Later views illustrate rag rugs in some of the same positions.
The earliest views of the Stenton interiors, and the Charles Pancoast views in particular, reveal that the photographer was interested in the objects and furnishings in the rooms. In Wallace’s later views, he was interested in illustrating the architectural aspects of Stenton’s interior. He rarely captured views that depicted an overall room. He concentrated on fireplace walls, paneling, cupboards, doors and the staircase. Whatever furniture was in his images of Stenton was incidental.
These earliest images of the Stenton interiors from c. 1904 to the 1930s show a house that was used as a backdrop or stage set for telling stories about the Logan family and early Philadelphia. It was furnished to convey a sense of its age, and Logan family furnishings were used and highlighted, as they were available. The decorating was of its own period, with white walls and trim, folksy rag rugs and elegant oriental carpets, and white curtains. This first generation of Dames was ahead of their time in listening to the advice of their restoration architect, Walter Cope. They changed little about the house, making only necessary repairs. They left the floorboards unfinished and the woodwork in the third floor unpainted as they had always been.