Knowing an antique's history adds human value to an heirloom that may or may not have high monetary value. Holiday season family get-togethers are good times to collect the valuable histories of furnishings which have been passed down through the generations of your family.
"It is rare for a family to stay in one place for even one generation these days, so we are losing the background and the context for so many of the things that come down to us," notes social historian Jeff Groff. Unlike our ancestors, "We don't write letters, diaries or journals and we don't keep bills of sale so that pieces of furniture and other objects become, so to speak, 'homeless'; they lose their roots."
Mr. Groff is director of Wyck, a remarkable house in the Germantown section of Philadelphia that was home for nine generations to the same Quaker family. "I can look around any room in this house and pick any particular piece and find out its story," said Mr. Groff, who has spent the last six months reading through 100,000 documents and relating them to some of the 10,000 objects at Wyck.
A sampling of Wyck's objects, together with the documents and photographs relating to them, can be seen through April 30 at the American Philosophical Society, 105 S. Fifth St. in Philadelphia, where the Wyck archives are on deposit. By example, this exhibit suggests what other families can do to give meaning to heirlooms.
As new furnishings and accessories replaced old at Wyck, collections of botanical specimens, minerals, American Indian artifacts and household gear no longer in use were stashed in cabinets and drawers much as other families filled their attics. Old letters, diaries and out-of-date children's books and games were tucked away into trunks and attic cupboards. In 1973, when Mary T. Haines turned the house and its contents over to a charitable trust, she stipulated that it not be run as a lifeless historic house but as "a witness to a way of life."
Thus Wyck is different from most historic properties; it exhibits items from the 17th century right up to the 20th century.
One can visit Wyck to learn about Quaker concern for the abolition of slavery and for the welfare of Indian tribes. Caspar Wistar Haines' membership certificate in the Pennsylvania Society for the Promotion of the Abolition of Slavery is dated 1792. An English china cake plate circa 1844 is decorated with a kneeling slave, a popular abolitionist symbol. The American Indian moccasins, pipes and beadwork were brought back by 19th century family members who visited Indian tribes in New England and the Midwest.
One can get ideas for house remodeling. In 1824 Reuben Haines 3rd, with the help of his friend, the architect William Strickland, turned the Colonial house into a Federal one by placing large windows across from each other, allowing light and air to flood the rooms. Foreshadowing design of 75 years later, pivoting hall doors and sliding pocket doors in the conservatory create a plan that allows rooms to either open into one space nearly 60 feet long or close off into more intimate spaces.
A visit to Wyck changes notions about the Quaker plainness. Though Reuben Haines 3rd wrote to his wife Jane in 1812, "It is my wish and I believe it is thine, to use always economy in our housekeeping establishment," they proceeded to furnish their Philadelphia house with costly and fashionable silver, ceramics and furniture and brightly colored fabrics which were moved to Wyck in 1820 when it became their year-round residence.
Their set of 25 fancy chairs in the Greek style was painted to BTC imitate satinwood. They cost $94.50 from Haydon & Stewart of Philadelphia in 1812. A high chair was made to match, a child's chair ordered later by a doting grandmother. The number of such chairs, as well as games, dolls and puzzles, show that children held a special place.
The Spode bone china flowerpot is the one ordered in 1816 by Hannah Marshall Haines as a present for Reuben and Jane. The porcelain tureen made by the Tucker factory in Philadelphia, painted with a "grisaille" (grey) scene and a gold border similar to the Spode pot, is part of the largest set of Tucker china known. There are over 100 pieces. The large amount of dinnerware, tea sets and glassware is evidence of the gathering of friends and family to dine and converse.
Gardens, botany and natural history were important to several ,, generations of Wyck residents. In 1790 Caspar Wistar Haines ordered 100 fruit trees from Prince's Nursery in Flushing, L.I. The bill exists. Reuben Haines traveled through the countryside with Rubens Peale, John J. Audubon and Thomas Say, collecting fossils and minerals. The wood duck he stuffed looks as fresh as the the day he stuffed it in 1825; he used plenty of arsenic.
Jane shared his interests and she scratched with a diamond point the correct botanical names on the reverse of her creamware botanical plates. Jane kept a notebook in which she sketched the garden plan and listed the roses and shrubs. More than three dozen varieties of old fashioned roses still bloom at Wyck.
(Wyck, 6026 Germantown Ave., Philadelphia, Pa. 19144, is open by appointment. Admission $2, students and seniors $1. The American Philosophical Society is open Mondays to Fridays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)