Friday, April 11, 2014

The Desecration of the Old Senate Chamber

Readers of last week’s blog entry may have noticed an event in the Old Senate Chamber’s history that forever left its mark on the appearance of the room. Known to some historians today as “the desecration,” the phrase was used in Elihu Samuel Riley's 1905 work, A History of the General Assembly of Maryland. Calling the renovations, "an act of historic sacrilege," Riley supposedly, "stood in the midst of the Chamber, when the desecration was in progress, and declared: 'This ought not to be done.'"[1]

On March 30, 1876, the General Assembly approved an appropriation of $32,000 for the “repair and improvement of the State House.”[2] In the next two years, under the supervision of Baltimore architect George A. Frederick, drastic changes were made to the historic rooms in order to preserve the safety of the building while updating the building’s style to a Victorian aesthetic. Unfortunately, these changes ultimately hid or destroyed several original architectural details throughout the State House.

The Old Senate Chamber, as it appeared after the 1876-1878 renovations. Most notable in this picture is the re-opening of two windows at the front of the room and the disappearance of the niche, covered with elaborate drapery in keeping with the Victorian aesthetic. Printer in Souvenir Album, General Assembly of Maryland, 1898 Session, MSA SC 5788.

Friday, April 4, 2014

A Living Shrine, The OSC in the Nineteenth-Century

The life of the Old Senate Chamber did not stop on December 23, 1783 when George Washington resigned his commission. In fact, while seeking to restore the room to how it appeared in the months that Congress was in session at the Maryland State House, researchers have had to look at the entire history of the room - stretching all the way through the nineteenth-century and into the present day. Though the Old Senate Chamber would change dramatically over the years, its status as the room where Washington appeared before Congress was never completely forgotten. Even as early as 1823, Maryland politicians were discussing placing a bronze statue of Washington in the Old Senate Chamber “upon the very spot where he resigned.”[1]

A detail of one of the earliest known stereocards of the Old Senate Chamber, c.1868, before renovations in the 1870s, taken by William M. Chase. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 5907-1-1.

Before the renovations between 1876-1878 that considerably altered the appearance of the room (known to some historians today as “the desecration”), the Old Senate Chamber had already dramatically changed since 1783. New, fashionable Empire-style desks were added in 1838 to replace the John Shaw desks supplied in the 1790s. Portraits of the four signers decorated the room, and a carpet was added in 1856. In 1858, the fireplace was taken out to make way for Edwin White’s Washington Resigning, the massive size of which inevitably made it a focal point of the room, consistently earning a mention in nearly every account until its move to the grand staircase in 1904.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Washington’s Britannia: Authenticating the Resignation Speech

As the clock continues to tick closer to the opening of the restored Old Senate Chamber in December 2014, we have already begun planning for the unveiling of Washington’s copy of the resignation speech. New followers of the project may be asking themselves why this speech is so important in the first place. In an age where documents can readily be viewed online and the frequent danger of forgeries, how, exactly, do we know that this is actually Washington’s copy of the speech?

Britannia watermark on Washington's resignation speech.
Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 5664-1.

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Dove and the Crown: Using Watermarks to Discover the OSC

Undoubtedly, some of the most important resources for learning what sort of furniture and architecture was in the Old Senate Chamber in the eighteenth-century comes from early receipts and state payment records. However, more frequently than you may imagine, these records can be left unsigned or undated - at which point historians have to look at other ways to understand the documents.

This partial watermark of a crown was found on an undated Intendant's memo that has since been narrowed to date between 1783-1786. You may also notice vertical (called chain lines) and horizontal (called laid lines) on the paper, which appear as part of the pre-industrial papermaking process. Maryland State Archives, MSA S1005-14154.

Papermakers in the eighteenth-century would often include subtle images called watermarks in their work. Though their original purpose is unknown, it is commonly thought that they were used as a sort of maker’s mark. To see a watermark, a viewer may sometimes have to look closely, holding the paper up to a light. While paper watermarks have largely disappeared from modern use, you can still see them on paper currency as a means of proving that it is not counterfeit.

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Different Kind of Laborer: Jane Lewis and Betty Simmons

Much like the unsung African American laborers who worked on the early State House, women’s contributions to the running of the State House went largely unrecorded. While we may know more about women of the upper-classes, like Molly Ridout, many working-class women have been long been lost to time. However, research into the Old Senate Chamber frequently comes up with rather unexpected results - and records of two women’s contributions to the running of the State House are among them. There is a lot we don’t know about these women, but what is known is interesting enough to hint at a possibility of many different stories.

Reproduction of the John Shaw flag by CRW Flags, 2009. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 1545-3348.

Followers of the blog may have seen the name Jane Lewis before, perhaps connected with Annapolis cabinetmaker, John Shaw. On May 13, 1778, the Orphans’ Court proceedings recorded, “The Court binds Jane Lewis, the Daughter of Ann George, an Infant of 9 years of age, as an apprentice to John Shaw of the City of Annapolis, as a Seamstress, the Said John Shaw obliging himself to cause her to be taught to read and write, and to pay her the sum of six pounds currency at the expiration of 16yrs her time of Servitude, in lieu of freedom dues.” Where Jane Lewis came from, who her mother Ann George was, and what happened to Jane after this record remains a mystery for now. However, what we do know from this rather peculiar record provides a considerable amount of information.

Friday, February 28, 2014

“The Sound of Fiddles,” Balls on State Circle

The ball for Washington, while most well-known, was far from the only celebration in Annapolis. In fact, contemporary accounts say there was a public ball at least twice a month during the city’s social season in the winter. Congressional delegates and passers-through to Annapolis in the eighteenth-century expressed delight at the entertainments of the city.

Annapolis in 1750 by Francis Blackwell Mayer, 1876, shows a romanticized depiction of a social scene between two prominent Maryland families - the Calverts and the Carrolls. Maryland State Archives, MSA SC 4680-10-0064.

When he first arrived in Annapolis as the Surveyor of Customs, under the protection of the Royal Governor, Robert Eden, William Eddis couldn’t help but describe the balls with some awe. “During the winter,” he remarked, “there are assemblies every fortnight; the room for dancing is large; the construction elegant; and the whole illuminated to great advantage. At each extremity are apartments for the card tables, where select companies enjoy the circulation of the party-coloured gentry, without having their attention diverted by the sound of fiddles, and the evolutions of youthful performers."[1]

Friday, February 21, 2014

African Americans in the State House

Frustratingly for everyone, the eighteenth-century lives of freed and enslaved African Americans are largely undocumented. However, occasionally, clues to these experiences appear in unexpected places. A search through eighteenth-century payment records for the Old Senate Chamber, for instance, can reveal some unexpected details about Maryland’s early workforce.

On March 15, 1784, the State of Maryland documented a payment for 9 shillings and 6 pence to a “Negro Cardy” for sweeping the chimney in the Court House.[1] To date, this is the earliest record of a free or enslaved African American working in the State House or on its grounds. Between 1784 and 1785, Cardy received at least three more documented payments from the state for chimney sweeping in the Court House and State House.

The earliest known payment record to a free or enslaved African American for work on State House grounds. Cardy's name appears on the fifth line from the top. Maryland State Archives, MSA S1005-97, p.37.