Posts by Anne Starr

"I See My Own Face Everywhere"

Italian woman Did your family travel through Ellis Island? Has some interesting story about how your ancestors came to America been passed down the generations? We asked questions like these of visitors to “Augustus Frederick Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits, 1905–1920.” Since the exhibition opened in October, visitors have shared a number of funny, thoughtful, and intriguing responses with us. Here is a sampling:

“My husband’s grandmother got on a ship from Europe to Ellis Island with her fiancé. She got off the boat engaged to my husband’s grandfather, NOT the original fiancé. We only wish we knew the stories of what happened on board!”

“My grandfather immigrated to the USA. Bought some land—then back to Ireland. Got married, had 11 children: 10 girls, 1 boy. Never returned to America.”

“My father came from an island in Greece—with no money but full of expectation and hope to build a family and new life in the USA. He did and was successful.”

“My mother’s parents and siblings came to the U.S. via Ellis island around 1910. My uncle took sick on ship and was taken off during a stop in Scotland. My grandmother was hysterical that she would not see him again. She waited at Ellis Island for a week and, sure enough, my uncle arrived on a later ship. As a token of my uncle’s stay in at Scottish hospital, he carried his picture taken at hospital, dressed in kilt! That picture (and the story) is still with our family to this day.”

“I immigrated from the U.S. to Australia in 2004.  It was struggle to figure out the visa application, housing, and even where to shop for certain things…. It struck me at the time and ever since how difficult immigration is for those who don’t speak the right language of who have very few resources. Makes you very vulnerable, to be in that situation.”

The exhibition has also helped our visitors gain new understanding about their ancestors’ lives as they settled in their new country. One commented, “This interesting exhibit clearly show how similar … we are to these brave people who faced adversity, change and the future with courage in their hearts and hope in their eyes. Just as we need to today.” Another observer said simply, “I see my own face everywhere.”

We hope you will tell us about your family’s immigration experience by clicking the Comments link below. Or you can visit the exhibition and leave us your thoughts on a comment card. “Augustus Frederick Sherman: Ellis Island Portraits, 1905–1920” will be on view through April 26, 2009.

Photo: Italian woman. Augustus Frederick Sherman (1865-1925). Courtesy of Aperture Foundation and Statue of Liberty National Monument/Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Samuel Gragg's Elastic Chairs

79_38a-bT1 GRAGG Innovative Boston furniture maker Samuel Gragg (1772-1855) combined the best in technology and fashion in his patented "elastic," or bentwood, chairs. The Museum is fortunate enough to hold a set of four of them, made in the early 1800s, in its collection. Only a few dozen of Gragg's elastic chairs survive, primarily in art museums. This design provides one of the earliest examples of bentwood furniture, a style that became popular several decades later.

Gragg’s so-called elastic chairs feature seven stiles, or vertical pieces of curved wood, that comprise both the seat and chair backs, and in some cases, even the front legs. Using pliable woods such as ash, oak and hickory, Gragg steamed the slats and bent them over a mold into graceful curves. He then assembled the chair, adding horizontal rails in the backs, more slats in the seat, and legs. The chair back remained flexible—or elastic—which, according to Gragg, made it “very comfortable & agreeable to the person sitting on it….” High-style furniture of the day also included of-the-moment ornamentation. The Museum’s examples have the characteristic carved goat feet, and simple designs carved into the top rails and the fronts of the seat. They also display evidence of repairs, showing that they were well-used in the past.

Although Gragg patented his chairs in 1808, records of his exact manufacturing methods were lost in an 1836 fire at the U.S. Patent Office. However, when researching the chairs for a 2003 exhibition at Delaware’s Winterthur Museum, furniture conservator Michael S. Podmaniczky discovered what was likely Gragg’s own copy of the patent, now housed at James Madison University in Virginia. For more information on Gragg’s inspiration and construction methods for his groundbreaking chair design, you can visit the Chipstone Foundation’s online version of Winterthur’s exhibition.

Side Chairs, 1808-1830. Samuel Gragg (1772-1855), Boston, Massachusetts. National Heritage Museum, gift of Mrs. Walter L. Weil. Photo by David Bohl.

George Washington’s Inaugural Bible

When Barack Obama takes the presidential oath of office next week, he will participate in a ceremony that dates back to George Washington’s 1789 inauguration. His choice to swear his oath on an historical Bible—the one that Abraham Lincoln used in 1861—is much rarer. Only four presidents have used Bibles that former presidents used, and all four chose the same one: George Washington’s.

GWBible after8 cropped

George Washington’s inauguration as the first U.S. president was held on April 30, 1789, in New York City. According to a 1908 account by New York’s St. John’s Lodge No. 1, although the ceremony was elaborately planned, at the last minute, organizers decided that the president should place his hand on a Bible when taking the oath of office. Jacob Morton, parade marshal and Master of St. John’s, quickly walked to his nearby lodge meeting room, and borrowed its 1767 King James Bible. Robert R. Livingston, State Chancellor and presiding Grand Master of Masons in New York, then administered Washington’s oath of office on it.

No one knows where the Bibles that the first fourteen presidents used came from, but we do know that in 1857, William Carroll, the clerk of the Supreme Court, procured a Bible for James Buchanan’s inauguration. Carroll and his successors provided the next half-dozen inaugural Bibles—including Abraham Lincoln’s. Then, on March 4, 1885, Grover Cleveland created a new tradition when he chose to swear his oath of office on a Bible his mother had given him when he was 15. Since then, most presidents have used family Bibles.

Freemason Warren G. Harding was the first president known to select the Washington Bible for his 1921 inauguration. Dwight D. Eisenhower followed in 1953, Jimmy Carter in 1977, and George Bush in 1989. George W. Bush intended to use it in 2001, but rainy weather changed the plan. He used a family Bible instead.

The George Washington Bible has been featured at a number of other important public and Masonic occasions, including Washington’s funeral procession in 1799; the dedication of the Masonic Temples in Boston and Philadelphia, in 1867 and 1869, respectively; the 1885 dedication of the Washington Monument, and its rededication 112 years later; a 1932 reenactment of Washington’s inauguration, commemorating the bicentennial of the first president’s birth; the inaugurations of some of New York’s governors; the installations of many of the Grand Masters of New York; and numerous exhibitions. Usually on display at New York’s Federal Hall, this Bible was on view at the National Heritage Museum for a 2005 exhibition on George Washington’s Masonic life and legacy.


Proceedings of the Sesqui-centennial celebration of St. John's Lodge, no. 1. (A.Y.M.) F. & A.M. of the State of New York: December 7th ... 5907. New York: St. John's Lodge, no. 1. (A.Y.M.) F. & A.M., 1908. Call number: 17.97751 .N1 1908 

Web site of the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies,

Thanks to St. John's Lodge No. 1 for their help with this entry. For more information on the George Washington Bible, please click the link "The Lodge" on the St. John's Lodge web site.

Bible, 1767. Printed by Mark Baskett, London. Photo courtesy of St. John’s Lodge No. 1, Ancient York Masons, Free & Accepted Masons, New York, New York. This Bible was opened to Genesis 49–50 when George Washington took his oath of office on it.

Calling All Collectors!

The National Heritage Museum gets its exhibitions from a number of sources. We produce some, like “Sowing the Seeds of Liberty,” primarily from the Museum’s collections. Others are the result of a collaboration between the Museum and another organization. For example, staff from the Massachusetts Cultural Council approached us with a great idea, eight years of fieldwork, and a list of artists who were interested in sharing their work with the public. We provided a gallery space and expertise in how to produce and display a museum exhibition. The result is the critically acclaimed show, “Keepers of Tradition: Art and Folk Heritage in Massachusetts,” now on view.

We even rent exhibitions from other organizations, which gives us access to objects we wouldn’t otherwise be able to present to our visitors. Our upcoming exhibition, “Jim Henson’s Fantastic World,” is a good example. The Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Services (SITES), in conjunction with the Henson Legacy and the Biography Channel, has produced this rare look into Jim Henson’s life work. The show will be traveling all over the country, with a stop here in Lexington from April 3-June 27, 2010.

Neon - 4thRoom3 We have produced some of our most popular exhibitions by drawing from local collectors’ material. These enthusiasts contacted us, or we heard about them through word-of-mouth or feature articles in newspapers and magazines. Once we’ve identified a collection related to a topic in American history that we think will be of interest to our visitors, and have learned that the collector is interested in working with us, we set a date for the exhibition, usually two to four years in the future. We then begin working with the collector to select the objects and themes that help tell a compelling story in American history. Recent exhibitions based on local collections include “The Western Pursuit of the American Dream,” “Blue Monday: Doing Laundry in America,” and “New England Neon.” Visitors enjoyed these shows, which we think provided winning combinations of the museum’s mission and collectors’ passions.

If you have or know of a collection that relates to a topic in American history, we’d like to hear from you! Please call us at 781-861-4101 or use our contact form.

Gallery photo of "New England Neon," which was on view at the museum from April 12-September 14, 2003. The museum worked with a local collector to produce this popular exhibition.

Ellis Island: Gateway to America

A thought-provoking new exhibition of portraits of immigrants, taken at Ellis Island by registry clerk Augustus F. Sherman, recently opened at the National Heritage Museum, and will be on view until April 26,2009. Equally as intriguing is Ellis Island’s place in American history as the primary immigration processing center at the height of immigration.

Main gallery Ellis Island Leaving their homelands to escape poverty or religious or political persecution, or lured by the promise of economic opportunity, more than 20 million people immigrated to America between 1892 and 1924. Some traveled with their families, but many sent a husband or older child to America to work for several years to pay for the rest of the family’s passage. More than 70 percent of them traveled through Ellis Island. Today, historians believe that more than 40 percent of Americans are descended from these trailblazers.
Augustus F. Sherman took the photographs featured in the exhibition from 1905-1920, during Ellis Island’s heyday. In 1907, the peak year, more than 1 million immigrants passed through its halls. The largest numbers were Catholics and Jews from eastern Europe, as well as Italians and Greeks. Many Germans, Dutch and Irish immigrated to America during this period as well.

Officials at Ellis Island processed immigrants primarily to weed out the sick and the indigent. Well-off travelers were assessed aboard ship, but the passengers traveling in steerage or third class disembarked at Ellis Island. There, doctors inspected them for “a loathsome or a dangerous contagious disease,” mental illness, or physical deformities, writing codes in chalk on the immigrants’ clothing to indicate potential health problems. Then, aided by interpreters, inspectors questioned each immigrant about his or her name, place of origin, literacy level, job skills, and financial means, to determine whether he or she was likely to become a burden to American society. Officials detained those suspected of problems for anxiety-ridden hours, days or weeks. These were the people Sherman photographed. Although most immigrants ultimately made it to New York, 2 percent were deported.

World War I intensified native-born Americans’ fears of foreigners. The U.S. government soon passed new immigration laws, enacted in 1924, which set quotas and slowed the influx of immigrants to America. As immigration legislation changed, Ellis Island’s role as a processing station became unnecessary. Its function shifted to law enforcement—arrest and deportation of foreigners suspected of crimes—until it finally closed in 1954. It reopened in 1990 as a museum, paying tribute to the many intrepid travelers who passed through its doors to start new lives in America.

The Great Hall seen from the west balcony, pre-1916. Augustus Frederick Sherman. Ellis Island, New York. Courtesy of Aperture Foundation and Statue of Liberty National Monument/Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Wake Up America Day

Wake Up America Day cropped In 2000, the Museum purchased a World War I-era poster with the slogan “Wake Up America Day” on it. Drawn by artist James Montgomery Flagg, known for his famous illustration of Uncle Sam (see our earlier post on this image), and featuring a stylized Minuteman, this poster was a perfect addition to the Museum’s collection. Its April 19 date—the anniversary of the battle of Lexington—linked the poster more closely with the Museum’s mission. But what was Wake Up America Day? Research using online databases of historical newspapers provided some answers.

Despite the war raging in Europe since August 1914, the United States had managed to remain neutral in the conflict. As German submarines sank increasing numbers of American cargo and passenger ships, it became clear to President Woodrow Wilson that war was unavoidable. On April 6, 1917, Congress declared war on Germany at Wilson’s prompting. In his April 2 address to Congress, Wilson called for at least 500,000 America men to join the fight.

Recruitment events began immediately. Within days, New York’s Mayor’s Committee on National Defense had begun planning a national recruiting event, called “Wake Up America Day,” to be held less than two weeks later, on Thursday, April 19, the anniversary of the battle at Lexington and Concord. By April 10, six governors and 80 mayors in 36 states had signed on. Cities across the country planned parades, meetings and demonstrations, along with midnight church bells and horseback-riding messengers dressed as Paul Revere trotting through the streets. In Manhattan, Miss Jean Earl Moehle played the part of the well-known patriot.

Uncle Sam from LOC New York illustrator James Montgomery Flagg joined the many fellow volunteer artists who made up the Division of Pictorial Publicity of the Committee on Public Information. Created soon after America's declaration of war, this organization sought to encourage Americans’ support for the war effort through modern advertising. Posters played an important role. Flagg must have designed this poster quite quickly for it to be printed and distributed in time to advertise the April 19 event. Flagg not only designed this poster, he also oversaw the construction of “ten huge floats mounted on automobile trucks” for New York’s Wake Up America Day parade.

Sixty thousand people attended New York City’s parade, and many thousand more participating across the country. Despite its national scale, Wake Up America Day failed to stimulate armed forces recruitment immediately. April 21’s New York Times commented that “whether through coincidence or not, enlistments in all branches of the service took a pronounced drop” on Friday, April 20. Although enlistments did increase the following week, volunteers did not fill the need. By May 18, 1917, the United States government instituted a draft, which remained in effect for the rest of the war.

Wake Up America Day, April 19, 1917. James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960). National Heritage Museum, Van Gorden-Williams Library and Archives, A2000/022/1. Photo by David Bohl.

I Want You for U.S. Army, ca. 1917. James Montgomery Flagg (1877-1960). Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

“Country Joins in ‘Wake Up, America!’” New York Times, April 10, 1917

“ ‘Wake Up America! A Day of Parades,” New York Times, April 16, 1917

“Bells at Midnight to Rouse Patriots,” New York Times, April 18, 1917

“Girl in Garb of Paul Revere Rides Down Fifth Avenue at Midnight to ‘Wake Up America’ on Lexington Day,” The Bellingham [Washington] Herald, April 19, 1917

“60,000 Paraders Stir Zeal of City for Call to War,” New York Times, April 20, 1917

“Recruiting Slumps After Wake-Up Day,” New York Times, April 21, 1917

“Recruiting Finally Takes a Big Spurt,” New York Times, April 24, 1917