- 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
The museum’s interpretative exhibits also reveal curious linkages among social phenomena. Until 1870, for example, lawns were almost exclusively the prerogative of the rich. “The first thing needed for a good lawn,” a horticulturist wrote in 1861, “is a great deal of money.” Then along came the Chadborn and Coldwell Company of Newburgh, New York, with their mighty “Excelsior”—a rotary, mass-produced lawn mower that could be had for as little as fourteen dollars. Armed with the Excelsior, the affluent middle class started laying in lawns of their own. In no time at all this sudden increase in cleared, level ground prompted sharp-eyed entrepreneurs to promote the games of badminton, croquet, and lawn tennis.
The Strong Museum can turn the noncollector into an amateur social historian.
Making the exclusive commonplace is one of the great social phenomena of the modern age, and this the Strong Museum delineates vividly, thanks to Mrs. Strong’s fondness for objects of commonplace manufacture. Victorian paperweights and gewgaws are shown to be the humble objets d’art of middle-class “house museums,” which aped in miniature the great art galleries and curiosity cabinets of the old European aristocracy. This fresh light on Victorian “clutter” makes for an enlargement of sympathy. Nineteenth-century knickknacks become ineffably poignant once it is realized that American families displayed them in their parlors as evidence of aspirations more refined than the materialism of the age.
The most striking insight provided by the Strong Museum’s historical exhibits is how little things have changed in the twentieth century compared with the revolutionary nineteenth. Canned foods were in wide use by the 184Os. Roller skating was a national fad in the 187Os. The American obsession with personal hygiene, deodorants, and toiletry was already firmly established a century ago. Little fantasy creatures who triumph over wicked adults, now a standard cliché of children’s television, originated with the Brownies created by Palmer Cox in the 188Os. Ferocious huckstering, vividly shown through Mrs. Strong’s collection of trade cards and posters, was as commonplace a hundred years ago as it is today. Doll mania swept the country eighty years before the Cabbage Patch craze. The list is endless. Judging by the Strong Museum, the last sixty years or so might seem a time of cultural stagnation.
Only a portion of the Strong Museum is devoted to its interpretative exhibits. On the second floor a substantial portion of Mrs. Strong’s “fascinations” are simply set out on shelves, including her peerless collection of dolls and dollhouses. Originally intended for the edification of experienced collectors, this “visible storage,” as museum people call it, has proven far more interesting to the general public than the museum’s creators had ever expected. It is the interpretative exhibits, I suspect, which have made them so. Armed with historical insights provided by the first-floor exhibits, the noncollector becomes a sort of amateur social historian.
Walking through the serried ranks of half-familiar objects, one can ponder, say, the remarkable fit between children’s toys and adult society as illustrated in the immense profusion of toy savings banks for the children of a commercial society and of toy derricks (my own childhood favorite) for the young inhabitants of rising new cities of brick and steel. Looking at the endless variety of objects, the social-historian-for-a-day might well puzzle over the quirks of the national psyche. What is it about Americans, for example, that made us so fond of folding chairs as early as the 185Os? What was the appeal of “potty figurines,” those ceramic statuettes of small children seated on chamber pots, blacks and whites often shown side by side. Immensely popular in an age of intense prudery and racial segregation, did these perverse little figurines represent a silent dissent from the official taboos? Perhaps, but nobody knows for sure. In the vast eccentric mass of objects that make up Margaret Woodbury Strong’s Museum of Fascination, there is still a great deal of matter that mind has yet to conquer.