- Historic Sites
A Fascination With The Common Place
The vast jumble of objects that once brought solace to an eccentric heiress has become a great museum of the middle class
August/September 1986 | Volume 37, Issue 5
She began collecting dolls, for they brought back the savor of the “wildly happy” times to a leaden, lonely heart. By the time of her death, there were twentyseven thousand dolls in her private museum of fascination. “She never, absolutely never, tired of showing you her dolls,” a Rochester dowager recalled. “The longer you stayed, the happier she was.” Dollhouses, too, brought back the precious savor and these, too, Mrs. Strong began to collect. Then she made a discovery. The obvious play things of childhood were not alone in recalling remote, happy times. As the child of a family of collectors, Margaret Strong had been uncommonly sensitive to objects. Now, by a reverse process, an astonishing array of objects still retained for her the exhilaration of childhood. Manufacturers had depicted the fanciful playmates of her scrapbooks on a huge array of cups, dishes, toys, and knickknacks; Mrs. Strong began collecting these. Snuff bottles gathering dust in curio shops brought back “Mr. George” and the SS Siberia , and so she began collecting snuff bottles. Every time Mrs. Strong discovered a new item that possessed the magical savor— fascination was her own word for it—she would open up a new category of collectibles. Onlookers were understandably mystified by so radically subjective a procedure. “You couldn’t help her at all,” a Rochester dealer recalled. “She’d come into my shop and walk around. Then she’d stop and point and say, ‘I want this one, and this one, and this one, and this one. … ’ Sometimes you’d wonder why she bought something. I’d ask her why and she’d answer, ‘I just liked it.’”
Driven in a limousine and dressed as if she were a charwoman, Mrs. Strong scoured flea markets.
Driven in a limousine and dressed like a charwoman, Mrs. Strong scoured antique shops and flea markets, estate sales and auctions. She outbid all rivals, trucked home whole collections, and welcomed all sellers at her door in her endless quest for anything and everything that possessed “fascination.” “She went everywhere, she bought and bought,” the Rochester dealer recalled. “She was kind of strange—people didn’t understand her loneliness and its pain.” By the time of her death, sad to say, Margaret Woodbury Strong had become a well-known figure of derision to a great many people in Rochester.
It was to take thirteen years and fifteen million dollars to convert Mrs. Strong’s Museum of Fascination into the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum, a fully accredited, intensely educational institution in a boldly modernistic building in downtown Rochester. The conversion can best be described as the splendid triumph of mind over matter. What Mrs. Strong had collected out of loneliness and pain now sparkles with historical significance. Her passionate fondness for old playthings has been transformed into a penetrating exhibit called “A Century of Childhood, 1820-1920,” which traces the evolution of the American idea of the child from that of a sinful midget (pre-1830) to that of an innocent sprite inhabiting a world of its own (circa 1900). Mrs. Strong’s mass of domestic odds and ends has become “Light of the Home,” an eloquent portrait of middle-class American women in the years between 1870 and 1910. The imaginative exhibit “Changing Patterns” defines with notable clarity the successive changes in home decoration during the confusing era that began with the onset of factory-made furniture. Thanks to Mrs. Strong’s utter indifference to almost every conventional canon of connoisseurship, the Strong Museum has been able to portray social change in America in a uniquely intimate way.
A typical example of this is the small collection of early bicycles displayed in the “Light of the Home” exhibit. Not only does it illustrate the well-known cycling mania of the 189Os, it is accompanied by an advertising poster that reveals the real driving force behind a seemingly light-hearted fad. The poster urges people to buy a certain brand of bicycle “For Health and Recreation” and the poster’s illustration makes it plain what kind of recreation. It shows a handsome young cyclist reclining on the bank of a deserted country road waiting for his female cycling partner to dismount and join him far from all prying eyes. What the bicycle offered well-bred youth in late Victorian America, as the museum deftly shows, was unprecedented privacy and personal freedom.