Commonplace
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www.common-place.org · vol. 4 · no. 2 · January 2004
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David Jaffee teaches history and new media pedagogy at City College of New York and the Graduate Center, CUNY.

 

 

"The timepiece boasted a calendar wheel and a moon dial, and it played seven tunes, one for each day of the week, and added a psalm for Sunday."

Cabinet of Curiosities

Curiosities Encountered:
James Wilson and Provincial Cartography in the United States, 1790-1840

David Jaffee

Part I | II | III | IV

I.

Two summers ago, we drove up the driveway of the Bennington Museum. The museum welcomed visitors with its new portico and greeted them with advertisements for its Grandma Moses collection. I wasn’t interested in Grandma Moses that day. I had come to Vermont looking for archival gems, a taste my family and friends sometimes find hard to understand. I remembered that Kenneth Zogry, the Bennington Museum’s curator, had organized a wonderful exhibit in 1995: "The Best the Country Affords: Vermont Furniture, 1765-1820." His catalogue’s fascinating documentary references suggested that I might find an abundance of information on furniture makers and furniture owners in the museum’s archives: file folders stuffed with clippings, stories to fill out my case studies of provincial craftsmen and consumers after the Revolution.

As often happens, the files were disappointing. The black loose-leaf binders held a wealth of material on the furniture that Zogry had found on his travels to private homes and local historical societies. Zogry’s files document the universe of furniture made in Vermont and, perhaps, let him make new attributions, but they did not contain the stories of craftsmen and their customers I was looking for that day. Only when I finally wandered out into the sunlit main gallery where the museum’s treasures were displayed–its objects from Vermont’s early history–did I begin to see the kinds of things that would help me understand how artisans and consumers imagined their worlds. The first thing that caught my eye was a large neoclassical sideboard, looking for all the world like a sophisticated Boston bowfront, but made in Windsor, Vermont. But the beautiful bowfront, even with its sleek lines, could not compare with the massive desk and encyclopedia-filled bookcase that dominated an entire corner of the room, where the museum staff had recreated the interior of an early-nineteenth-century Vermont home (fig. 1).


Fig. 1. James Wilson, bookcase and globe, from the collections of the Bennington Museum, Bennington, Vermont

The desk, I learned, belonged to James Wilson of Bradford, Vermont. More interesting, the label stated Wilson was the United State’s first globe maker, and indeed, one of Wilson’s early globes sat in a plexiglass case in front of the display. It seemed strange to me then that a man in this out-of-the-way place had taken to making globes (fig. 2).


Fig. 2. James Wilson, terrestrial globe, c. 1810, from the collections of the Bennington Museum, Bennington, Vermont

Or perhaps it is the people of the provinces who best understand the need for assuring a good local source for things like maps. We know nineteenth-century Vermonters were intellectually sophisticated cosmopolitans of a sort.

At the other end of the room stood a marvelous musical tall clock built by a Rutland clock-making partnership. The timepiece boasted a calendar wheel and a moon dial, and it played seven tunes, one for each day of the week, and added a psalm for Sunday. Between the globe and the clock, museum curators had hung a 1795 landscape of Bennington painted by Ralph Earl, a well-known Connecticut portraitist. Earl was likely the first painter to visit the town, where he produced this very early example of an American landscape.

The museum’s local treasures preserved Vermont’s contribution to the new nation’s commercial and cultural history. The objects on display were connected by their visual power and by their local historical significance, but they also recorded the curiosity and intellectual ambitions of men and women of rural New England. I left the Bennington Museum that day enthralled with the discovery of James Wilson, wanting to know more about how a globe maker could have come out of the upper Connecticut River Valley in the 1790s. As I later learned, others in the hinterlands also tried to make globes; New Hampshire shoemaker, surveyor, and farmer Samuel Lane, for example, made his own idiosyncratic version of a terrestrial globe around 1760. Lane turned a seven-inch oak sphere on his lathe, scored the painted surface, and cut degrees and continental boundaries into the painted surface, while pinning it into a pine table made in the form of a milking stool so it could revolve.

I was also vaguely aware of the new scholarly history of cartography, but I had little idea how the four corners of that gallery would come together into my fascination with the Village Enlightenment. Wilson was not the only New Englander to fashion a career out of his own curiosity; in the 1790s many Americans made money satisfying country folks’ interest in the latest mechanical marvels, like the complex musical clock, or their desire to own the maps that let them see the shape and extent of their new nation.

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Copyright © 2004 Common-place The Interactive Journal of Early American Life, Inc., all rights reserved