Migrating Cultures

migrating cultures

Foreign tools and family treasures came to America like stowaways in immigrants’ baggage. Trish Balderson retraces migration’s story through museum objects.


Harmony Hunter: Welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter, filling in this week for Lloyd Dobyns. Today we have Trish Balderson with us, and Trish is manager of museum education. Trish, I've asked you here today to talk about a museum walking tour called "Migrating Cultures."

I love the idea of this tour, that you're looking at artifacts and using them to tell the story of the immigrants behind them. Tell us a little bit about the idea of this tour.

Trish Balderson: I've been working on the tour off and on for a couple of years. Started by in part my interest in the historical background of migration and early settlement patterns in the 17th and the 18th century in the British colonies. I was fascinated with the motivations behind why European people, making the decision to move somewhere, either to provide a better living for themselves or their families, or to find a place that was more religiously or ideologically similar to their beliefs. How these people would move to a place, sight unseen, with very little information and decide to spend the rest of their lives there.

Harmony: Do you remember looking at some of these artifacts and imagining the history of the people who held them?

Trish: That was the other part of my interest, was seeing objects from our collection that had similarities in terms of the artistic characteristics or motifs on the objects or similarities in the histories. And yet, one of the objects might have been made in Virginia, another of the objects may be made in Ohio or even Texas. Obviously people with the interest and the need in making these objects were finding themselves in those different locations, or moving to those different locations.

I wanted to find out more about those settlement patterns as well. So there are some really fascinating objects that we have with interesting stories about the people who made them or the people who used them. Those were the stories I wanted to use to tell this bigger story of settlement and migration.

Harmony: These must be really precious objects. If you think about people coming from – where are they migrating from – you said Germany, Ireland, Scotland. They're coming from a long way. They can't take very many things. So these objects must have been of some particular – more than particular – significance to them.

Trish: In some cases, they are objects that were precious to them, either because of a family history, or they were something that was going to be so needed in their new life that they'd have to take it with them. Other cases though, we're talking about objects that they would make or create once they got to their new location. It might be an object that was created in an artistic way, perhaps to remind them of where they came from, or the type of heritage or cultural background that they came from. Or it might be a utilitarian object, again, that would still include particular characteristics or traits that came from their particular background, the country of their origin.

Harmony: What time period have you chosen to look at?

Trish: We start right with early settlement in 1607 and make our way up to about 1800. So the tour covers a big chronological span, and within the confines of the museum, we also cover a lot of ground, visiting a lot of different exhibits, and seeing a lot of different types of objects too.

Harmony: How do these objects find their way to the museum? How are they collected?

Trish: They're collected in a number of different ways. Over the years, people have donated those things to the collections, and we have looked for things that help illustrate the stories of early colonists, both in Virginia as well as in 18th century America.

But we also now, more recently, look for objects that help fill holes in our collection. Where maybe we can tell a partial story, but if we had an additional piece, that would complete the story for us. So sometimes things are purchased, sometimes things are donated.

Harmony: So I want to talk specifically about some of the objects that people will see on the tour. So let's hear a little bit about some of these stops you'll actually be making on the tour.

Trish: Sure. One of the early stories we talk about is the Puritan migration in the 17th century. Puritans, or Pilgrims, coming over to the New England colonies, like Massachusetts or Connecticut. I use a Hadley chest, a wooden, almost dowry chest to tell the story of Puritans that are settling in Massachusetts. Hadley chests were indicative of Western Massachusetts, something made regionally there. That was an area that was settled by Puritans.

Part of their religious philosophy was a strong belief in the family, and these being basically dowry chests were something that was created for young women, about the time of their marriages, to store the things that they're going to need for their new life as a wife and potentially a mother.

Harmony: Why is it called a Hadley chest?

Trish: Because it's made in an area of Hadley, Massachusetts, and a couple of other surrounding towns in that Western portion of Massachusetts.

Harmony: So how do you know one when you see one?

Trish:They have very distinctive carvings on them, similar to the type of carving that you would see in various areas of England where these Puritan groups originated from. One of the motifs that you see over and over again are tulips carved into the chest. Tulips were a symbol of rebirth and rejuvenation, which kind of goes along with the idea of starting a new family.

Harmony: You've also got, you've also got an artifact that brings in the story of German immigration, what is that?

Trish: We've got a couple of things we talk about in terms of German immigration. One of the objects is a fraktur, and that's a watercolor painting on paper. Frakturs were certificates in the 18th and the 19th centuries that would commemorate birth, marriages, family records. Sometimes frakturs, rather than just being certificates, were Bible verses or religious verses of some sort. They were meant to be a decoration that you would hang in your home. Along with the wording that you would see, you would also see an illustrated border.

That's what a lot of people will recognize who know a little bit about frakturs is the botanical and natural motifs of the decoration on the border that you see. So, flowers and birds and vines. These things, to German immigrants, would symbolize a connection that they saw between man, God, and nature. They saw this kind of three-legged stool, so to speak, or triangle, and saw the interconnectedness of these three features.

You'll see those types of motifs not only on the fraktur paintings, but you'll see the same motifs on painted furniture, sometimes on textiles, musical instruments, which we actually have one of, and a number of different things. So we talk about German immigration and start out by telling that story with the fraktur and then we look at another object, a musical instrument that shows those same motifs, to kind of continue with the story.

Harmony: What is the instrument?

Trish: It's a scheitholt. It's a stringed instrument that would be basically held in your lap and plucked. Scheitholts are interesting because each one is a little bit different. They could be different sizes, they could have different numbers of strings, their sound holes could be in different places. So each one sounds a little bit different, made pretty much exclusively by the instrument maker for the person who's going to be playing the instrument. Most of them are very plain, but this one particular one we have on our collection that dates to the 18th century is decorated with these German motifs, which is really neat.

Harmony: And tell us, I'd like to hear about the Virginia dulcimer – this is from the Irish tradition.

Trish: Right. We also have, after talking about scheitholts as a German instrument, then we can compare that with the Irish dulcimer, the type of instrument that Irish, or maybe even Scottish immigrants would be playing in places like the Shenandoah Valley. That musical instrument tradition is also carried into places like Tennessee and Kentucky, where they make a slightly different shaped dulcimer, based in the interests of the people that are going to be playing it in those locations. So again, those instruments are kind of going to be custom made for the people who are going to be playing them, too.

Harmony: And it seems like there is, there is a nice story you have behind the Shenandoah Valley clock. This has a mixture of cultural influences. Do you see a sort of melting pot in that clock?

Trish: That's one of the objects that we finish the tour talking about, because it's a late 18th century object. It's a tall case clock from the Shenandoah Valley, over in the Western corner of the valley. It was an area that was isolated, yet close enough to travel routes through the Shenandoah Valley. It was originally an area settled by German and Swiss immigrants who were very prosperous farmers. The area also attracted other tradespeople -- people who were capable of making a clock like this one. It's a very decorative clock.

We don't know who made it, we do know that a Swiss immigrant who owned a tavern had the clock, from what we understand, in his tavern. So, this very fancy clock in a Western Virginia tavern is kind of an interesting thought in and of itself. But the artistic and decorative motifs include some decoration that could be German, that could be strictly English. But at the very top of the clock is very clearly seen an American eagle figure.

So kind of to me it symbolized that above everything else, the maker wanted you to see that American eagle and see that as kind of the pinnacle of the piece. At this time, by the 1790s or so when the clock is made, everybody's an American, and that's the important thing that the maker wanted to show. And likely the tavern owner as well.

Harmony: Do you find a lot of these very specific traits that you see in these artifacts blending into a larger American tradition?

Trish: They do by the time of the Revolution become blended, because in most areas where people have settled, there is a mixture of cultures: German, Scottish, Irish, Swiss, all coming together. They, in some cases, retain their cultural influences, but they do start to mix them. People are very patriotic at the time of the Revolution, so that mix is seen for a couple of decades. One of the things I really like at the end of the tour, because I offer to stay around and answer questions individually or to chat with people after the tour, I like it when people want to talk about their own family stories. Where their ancestors migrated to, where their families ended up. Or they want to talk about the town that they're from, and the immigrant group that maybe settled that town and the types of influences they can still see in their region or their town that they're from. That, to me, is kind of the perfect ending if people kind of make those connections to their own lives and make it relevant to their own personal histories.

Harmony: Where can people see the tour?

Trish: It is offered at the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum.

Harmony: Great, thanks for coming out today.

Trish: You're welcome.

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