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June 2014

Washington's Buttons or Shady Hoax?

86_62_10a-cDP1DBAt the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, we love objects that have a good story. This framed pair of buttons, which were donated in 1986 as part of a large collection of ephemera and prints associated with George Washington (1732-1799), have a fantastic story framed with them. However, years of curatorial experience have also made us somewhat suspicious of stories that seem too good to be true.

According to the information with the buttons, they are “General George Washington’s Military Waistcoat Buttons,” which he wore during the Revolutionary War. The typewritten note framed with the buttons goes on to trace their descent from George Washington through several generations of his family to William Lanier Washington (1865-1933). At the bottom of the note, William Lanier Washington signed his name and had his signature notarized. The buttons were part of an auction in New York City in February 1922 – they are listed as lot #198 and a note in the catalog indicates that they are “framed, together with the statement, made under affidavit, setting forth the history of these Revolutionary War relics of General Washington, and line of descent to the present owner.”

However, a little research into William Lanier Washington turns up some questions about the authenticity of the buttons. The auction at which these buttons were sold was at least the third that offered items from William Lanier’s collection. A catalog from a 1920 auction also includes multiple lots of buttons from George Washington’s clothing. And, there had been an auction in 1917, as well. Some accounts suggest that William Lanier Washington was known as a pariah in his family, although little has been written by scholars about these auctions or William Lanier. One story related to the 1917 auction ends tragically. At the sale, G.D. Smith (1870-1920), who helped Henry Huntington (1850-1927) assemble his famed library, purchased a pair of candlesticks thought to have been used on Washington’s desk at Mount Vernon. Three years later, William Lanier came to see Smith and attempted to sell him a set of candlesticks that Washington used on his desk at Mount Vernon. Smith related that he had already purchased one such set, got into an argument with Washington and dropped dead in the heat of the moment.

While the stories about William Lanier Washington and the repeated sales from his collection call the authenticity of these buttons - and the other objects in his auctions - into question (see also the survey scale at the George Washington Masonic Memorial in Alexandria, Virginia, and the seal ring at the Sons of the American Revolution), he did have a direct family connection to George Washington and some of the items he sold were owned by George. You can judge for yourself in our new exhibition (June 2014), Prized Relics: Historical Souvenirs from the Collection, where the buttons will be on view.

Pair of Buttons, 1770-1840, unidentified maker, United States, Dr. William L. and Mary B. Guyton Collection, 86.62.10a-c. Photograph by David Bohl.


Eliakim Libby's Hook and Eye

Libby Hook and Eye 75_35DI3 for blogAs noted in a previous post, getting ready for the exhibition “Prized Relics:  Historic Souvenirs from the Collection,” opening  June 14, 2014, at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum and Library, has afforded staff a great chance to learn more about some of the lesser-known objects in the Museum’s collection. Among the group is this small hook and eye owned by Eliakim Libby (1745-1836). This humble fastening gives us a glimpse of the ordinary people who fought in the Revolutionary War and deserves a close look.

When this hook and eye was donated to the Museum, it had been sewn to a card (as you can see to the left). The message on the card helps explain why the hook and eye eventually made its way to the collection:  “This hook and eye w[as] worn on an army cloa[k] in the Revolution.” Underneath this statement is an inked name, Eliakim L[i]bby. Histories and pension records document Eliakim Libby’s service in the Massachusetts Militia. Libby, from Scarborough, Maine, joined in May 1775, as a sergeant. During his eight months of service near Boston he dug trenches and kept guard at Lechmere Point. 

Like most relics, this object and its accompanying information raise some questions. One was inspired by the card the hook and eye is attached to—a business card for John P. Moulton (1849-1909), carpenter and contractor of Saco, Maine. From the design and paper, it appears to date from the late 1800s or early 1900s. Saco area buisness directories list Moulton from 1890 through 1904. Since Moulton’s and Libby’s lives did not overlap, Libby could not have signed Moulton’s business card. As well, the name written on the card does not resemble Libby’s witnessed signature on his 1832 pension application.     Letter from Eliakim Libby Nov 26 1775 front smaller

Adding interest to the story, two letters (one of them is pictured to the right, both are in the Museum’s collection) that Libby wrote to his wife, Mehitable Cummings Libby (1746-1822) bear the same distinctively written and inked name--Eliakim L[i]bby--as the hook and eye’s card. Although we don’t know who, it appears that someone--possibly one of Libby’s descendants--added Libby’s name to the letters and to the card. Perhaps prompted by a desire to underscore the antiquity of the objects associated with Libby or to emphasize their connection to Libby, the person who added the name scripted it in an approximation of an old-fashioned style. Does this addition detract from the letters and the hook and eye?  A purist might argue that the signatures, appended to the letters more than one hundred years after they were written, take away from the object.  On the other hand, linking the letters and hook and eye with Libby may have contributed to their long-term preservation.

Regardless of what you think about the added signatures, the letters are evocative. In one Libby speaks of prosaic matters like how much money he plans to send home and his health, noting, “I have had a Bad Cold But am Better.” He also writes about missing home, saying, “my de[a]r wif[e] I Long to Sey you and my De[a]r Child,” and touchingly concludes as, “you[r] Loving husband and Loving fri[e]nd til…de[a]th.”  These letters, and the hook and eye saved with them, hint at the human concerns that Libby and others like him experienced while serving far from home during the Revolutionary War.  


Hook and Eye, 1770s. New England. Gift of John H. Barthelmes, Jr., 75.35.

Letter from Eliakim Libby, November 26, 1775. Cambridge, Massachusetts. Gift of John H. Barthelmes, Jr., A75/009/1.

The oldest book in our library collection: A Geneva ("Breeches") Bible, 1580

1580 Bible NT TPAs the librarian here at the Scottish Rite Masonic Museum & Library, I occasionally get asked "what's the oldest book in your collection?" While age alone is not an indicator of rarity or value (whether financial or intrinsic), it's clear that people are moved by the survival of old books.

The oldest book in our collection is over 430 years old - a copy of the Geneva Bible, printed by Christopher Barker in London in 1580. The British Library gives a quick synopsis of the Geneva Bible: "English protestants in exile in Calvinist Geneva, Switzerland, produced a translation of the New Testament in 1557...followed by a translation of the complete Bible in 1560. Editions were printed in England from 1576 onwards."

The Geneva Bible, which was the first English translation from the original Hebrew and Greek texts (rather than from the Latin Vulgate), is sometimes known as the "Breeches Bible" for its rather unusual (some might say comical) translation of a passage in Genesis 3:7 about Adam and Eve: "They sewed figge tree leaves together and made themselves breeches." In our copy, a former owner noted the passage in red ink (see photo below).

Breeches pageSince we are discussing the oldest book in our library, it would be useful to add some historical context to when this Bible was printed. When this Bible was printed in 1580:

- The first performance of a Shakespeare play was still 10 years away (ca. 1590)
- The publication of the King James Version of the Bible (a reaction to the Geneva Bible) was over 30 years away (1611)
- The arrival of the Mayflower in modern-day Plymouth, Massachusetts was 40 years away (1620)
- And the beginning of the American Revolution was almost 200 years away (1775)

Although we don't know when - or with whom - our copy made its journey from England to North America, two ownership marks tell us that the book was once in Madison, Wisconsin and then in Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Pictured at top is the title page for the New Testament in our copy.

The Bible, translated according to the Ebrew and Greeke, and conferred with the best translations in diuers languages; with most profitable annotations vpon all the hard places, and other things of great importance ... [Geneva Bible]
London: Christopher Barker, printer to the Queenes Maiestie, 1580.
Call number: RARE BS 170 [1580]