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The Ins and Outs of the Stenton Collection

Caroline Stokes, 1818 Burlington County, New Jersey. Silk threads on undyed linen. (Gift of Mrs. Harrold E. Gillingham to NSCDA/PA Headquarters)

One way that Stenton reaches beyond its site at 18th Street and Windrim Avenue in Philadelphia is by lending objects to other institutions. Although this has always been part of Stenton’s outreach, more frequent requests for loans in recent years can be attributed to the profile-raising This Glorious House: Stenton loan exhibition at the 2002 Philadelphia Antiques Show. During the last year, we have shared collections with a number of institutions regionally and nationally. This has also led to several incoming loans and gifts of objects, for which we are most grateful. The “Ins and Outs of the Stenton Collection” involve a number of people and institutions: donors, conservators, collectors, curators, exhibit designers, and so on. The ongoing process of learning from objects is a vital part of what we do. 


In May 2007, The NSCDA/PA lent five of its seven samplers to the exhibition Stitched Together – Early American Samplers from the Collections of The National Society of the Colonial Dames of America and Friends, a joint exhibition at The Clarke House Museum, an NSCDA museum property in Chicago and the Chicago Cultural Center. In preparation, Pennsylvania Dame Virginia Jarvis Whelan, who is a Textile Conservator specializing in needlework, cleaned and remounted the samplers in her Merion Studio. Mark Palermo built new frames in his Germantown studio for all but the Caroline Stokes sampler, which was in its original frame. For the stabilization, preservation and improved presentation of our samplers we gratefully acknowledge the generosity of Gina Whelan along with Hannah Henderson and Alice Lea Tasman, who together funded the new frames. 

Another sampler belonged to Mary Norris Logan (d. 1886), a granddaughter of George and Deborah Norris Logan of Stenton. She was probably born about 1810 to Albanus Charles Logan (1783-1853) and Maria Dickinson (1783-1854). This Quaker-style alphabet sampler survived in excellent condition, unframed until 2007. 


Other objects have also been the focus of research and study. A loan of Stenton’s faunal archeological collection – in other words, animal bones – to The University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archeology and Anthropology is for study rather than for exhibition. Teagan Abigail Schweitzer, a PhD candidate in anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, has been analyzing the bones for evidence of the Logan diet and what people were eating at Stenton in the middle of the 18th century. She will then compare her findings with those from other sites in the City including a collection from Independence Park. This type of analysis can reveal a great deal about not only diet but further point out the foodways and lifestyle of the Logans compared with other 18th-century families. 

Stenton fauna Animal bones, c. 1750-1760. Excavated in 1982 by Barbara Liggett.

Other parts of the archaeological collection suggest important aspects of life at Stenton. One rare bottle, Robert Turlington’s cello-shaped “Balsam of Life” bottle, traveled to Pottsgrove Manor in Pottstown for the exhibition,“Cures that Kill: Physicians, Surgeons and Other Quacks in Colonial America,” which was on view from July to September 2007. Turlington received a patent for his 26-ingredient formula for “Remedy for Every Malady” in 1744 and the unique cello-shape went out of use by 1754. The Stenton bottle is dated on one edge, “OCT 29 1751.” The only other known example, from “MARCH 25 1750” is in the archeological collections at Colonial Williamsburg. The Balsam of Life is something James Logan (1674-1751) may have been using at the end of his life as he suffered from increasingly debilitating “fits of the palsey” [strokes].

Stenton fauna Animal bones, c. 1750-1760. Excavated in 1982 by Barbara Liggett.

Pharmaceutical bottle. Colorless glass, England, 1750-1754. 2 1⁄2 inches high. Excavated in 1982 by Barbara Liggett.

A recent loaned object is a silver ewer passed down through the family of Sarah Logan Fisher. According to the inscription on the bottom of the foot inside the rim, this ewer was commissioned by Thomas Fisher (1741-1810). Thomas, originally from Lewes, Delaware, married James Logan’s granddaughter, Sarah Logan (1751-1798) in 1772. The Stenton collection includes a small English rococo salver and cruet set bearing Sarah’s cipher from the year of their marriage, also from the Drinker family. The couple resided on the quarter of the Stenton lands inherited by Sarah in a house called “Old Wakefield,” which was a house built or renovated by James Logan for his mother, whom he brought from England in the 1710s. The couple later built a grand federal-style house with bays at the ends and columns in front, similar in form to The Woodlands, calling that “Wakefield.” 

Thomas and Sarah’s son, Joshua Fisher (1775-1806) married Elizabeth Powell Francis (1777-1865). Joshua never lived to see his progeny as he died at the age of 31 on October 20, 1806. A family companion to this ewer has always been an ivory portrait miniature of Joshua Fisher. 


The ewer was likely a wedding gift as Joshua and Elizabeth married in 1806. It may also have become a mourning vessel as Fisher died within months of the wedding. The Fisher family history, the companion portrait miniature, and the form of the ewer suggest that it is a mourning object. The fashionable French Empire form of this ewer also has symbolic meaning. The urn is a common form in early 19th-century mourning and funerary art, and this is an urn-shaped ewer, with a garland of laurel leaves forming the S-curved handle and laurel leaves around the bottom of the belly. The urn is a Greek symbol of mourning, symbolizing the body as the container of the soul. The ewer itself, a vessel for the pouring of water, may allude to the many tears the Fisher family shed over Joshua’s death. The laurel leaves represent eternal life. This unusual object, was recently put on loan to Stenton by Mr. Edward “Ned” Middleton Drinker, a Logan descendant.

Finally, were pleased to add a walking or great wheel to the Stenton collection in 2007, thanks to the generosity of Joan Driscoll, a member of the Stenton Committee. Usually used for the twisting of wool fibers into thread or yarn, the walking wheel was operated from a standing position. Because the wheel is so large, a single revolution of the wheel causes many revolutions of the spindle, where the yarn is spun from. The tension is easy to adjust with a simple step forward or backward. A disadvantage of this type of wheel is that one must stop spinning to take up the yarn already made. The image of the spinning wheel is one that many associate with Colonial times and the additional of this lovely object speaks directly to Stenton’s ongoing efforts to preserve America’s colonial history and share it with others.

Walking or Great Wheel Various woods. Southeastern Pennsylvania (Gift of Joan Driscoll, 2007)

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