Exhibit spotlight: The Cohen family’s wine cooler, early 19th century

Posted on April 20th, 2015 by

The artifacts on display in “The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen” exhibit are few, but fabulous.  Take, for example, this early 19th century silver-plated wine cooler, from the Cohen house on North Charles Street, Baltimore.

JMM# 1978.30.4, donated by Florence H. Trupp.

JMM# 1978.30.4, donated by Florence H. Trupp.

Donated to the JMM in 1978 by Florence H. Trupp, this 11 inch cooler is in excellent – if tarnished (more on that in a moment) – condition. It is unmarked, but was likely made in Sheffield, England, where many factories turned out a wide variety of silver-plated tableware and decorative items in what came to be known as Sheffield Plate.

Wine coolers were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Both functional and decorative, they were available in a variety of styles and materials, including silver, silver-plate, glass, ceramic, and wood; take a look at some examples in the collections of the Met, here. Our particular artifact was originally one of a pair, intended for use on the table in the dining room (or other party venue), each holding a single bottle. Crushed ice would be packed into the base and covered by the canister-shaped liner or insert, leaving the bottle sitting cool and dry inside the liner.

With the insert removed.

With the insert removed.

 “Wine Cooler with Bottle,” Anonymous, Italian, 19th century.  From the Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1953, Metropolitan Museum of Art. www.metmuseum.org

“Wine Cooler with Bottle,” Anonymous, Italian, 19th century. From the Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1953, Metropolitan Museum of Art. www.metmuseum.org

The donor informed us of the artifact’s history at the time of donation.  The Cohens were one of the first Jewish families of Baltimore, and they were members of the city’s social elite. A wonderful description of a fancy dress ball, given by Benjamin I. and Kitty Etting Cohen in 1837, can be found in a letter written by Rebecca Lloyd Post Shippen to her mother; Mrs. Shippen focused mostly on the important guests in attendance, but she also described the house itself:

“You remember that everything about the house is rich and expensive . . . . The principle Table extended the length of the Room, decorated with beautiful China, cut glass and Silver . . . . [Everything was] served in the best style.”  (Published in the Maryland Historical Magazine, Volume XIV, 1919.)

“The best style” certainly applies to this artifact. The campana (bell or urn) shape was a popular form; other fashionable elements include the shell handles, and the gadrooning around the collar and base.  When polished and gleaming, holding the best selection from your wine cellar, it would have been an impressive part of a well-set table.

A close-up look at the gadrooning around the top edges of the insert.

A close-up look at the gadrooning around the top edges of the insert.

That certainly lends credence to the idea that this particular piece belonged to a well-to-do family like the Cohens.  Even better is the fact that our cooler matches, almost exactly, the description found in the catalog of the 1929 auction of the Cohen household’s effects:

 “224. Pair Sheffield Wine Coolers. Urn shape on baluster foot. Handles with shell gadroon. All parts complete. Gadroon motif about foot and edge of mouth. Part of Judith Cohen wedding presents. 18th century. Height 11 inches. Width 11 inches.” From the catalog for the sale of “The Antique Furnishings of the Cohen House,” 1929.  JMM# 1984.20.2, donated by Arthur J. Gutman.

“224. Pair Sheffield Wine Coolers. Urn shape on baluster foot. Handles with shell gadroon. All parts complete. Gadroon motif about foot and edge of mouth. Part of Judith Cohen wedding presents. 18th century. Height 11 inches. Width 11 inches.” From the catalog for the sale of “The Antique Furnishings of the Cohen House,” 1929. JMM# 1984.20.2, donated by Arthur J. Gutman.

(It is worth noting that the cataloger, Robert Frank Skutch, assigned too early a date; this style is more typical of the 1810s-30s than the 18th century.  Sadly, that rather negates the wedding gift story, since Judith Solomon married Israel I. Cohen in 1787.)

The multi-day auction was covered by the Baltimore Sun in a series of articles; unfortunately, not every item caught the reporter’s attention, so I’ve not yet discovered the purchaser of the Sheffield wine coolers, nor their final price. (I did learn, however, that a delegate sent by Henry Ford – yes, that Henry Ford – got into a bidding war with Manny Hendler over a pair of lamps. Mr. Ford won.)  The newspaper reports indicate that the auction was a big deal both locally and in the broader antique-collecting community, in part because of the age and quality of the items up for sale, but also because of the Cohen family’s prominence in the city.  As Skutch noted in his Introduction to the auction catalog:

“The Cohen family from the beginning of the last century maintained open house. Here, mingled the culture, public spirit, and social grace of early Baltimore. Fine living was an inborn characteristic of this family, and they maintained a home worthy of the best traditions of Baltimore, and of Maryland.”

…As for the wine cooler’s current lack of shine, there is a good reason for it.  Silver is, in its way, quite fragile; the polishing and buffing you give your household pieces can be extremely damaging over time, and museums are particularly careful with their silver goods.  Removing tarnish actually removes a layer of silver, which is definitely to be avoided with silver-plated items; the mechanical process of handling and cleaning an artifact is an opportunity for accidental damage; and any polish residue – or even water – left in the nooks and crannies of decoration is both unattractive and harmful.

Left-over polish residue can be seen in the details of the handle’s shell motif.

Left-over polish residue can be seen in the details of the handle’s shell motif.

In an ideal situation, silver and silver-plated items are initially (and gently) polished, then stored and/or displayed in appropriately tarnish-inhibiting environments, thus minimizing the need for future cleaning.  In this case, however, the wine cooler was already in a tarnished state, and our exhibit design did not allow for an elaborate case; tarnish would have built up again over the months the artifact was on display.  Rather than create a need for multiple polishing sessions, we concluded it was safer to leave it be for now.  Though the visual impact is somewhat diminished, the wine cooler’s elegant form, expensive material, and general “extra”ness (what, you think I’d just put the bottle on the table? Oh no! I’ve got a fancy silver container!) nonetheless help us illustrate the Cohen family’s important position in Baltimore society.

Come see the Cohen family’s artifacts – and read the entirety of Mrs. Shippen’s letter – in person! “The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen” is on display at the Jewish Museum of Maryland through June 14, 2015.

JoannaA blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts from Joanna click HERE.

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Changing Up the Exhibition

Posted on December 17th, 2014 by

This month, we made a small change to The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen exhibit: We switched out Mendes’ passports.

Your friendly neighborhood Collections Manager opens up the secured exhibit case.

Your friendly neighborhood Collections Manager opens up the secured exhibit case.

Why? Well, for starters, because the lender – the Maryland Historical Society – asked us to.  They loaned us eight passports, with the caveat that each be on display for only three months. Before the exhibit opened, we planned out which passports would go out together, based on the space available in the exhibit case.  The first visitors to the exhibit saw Italian, Greek, and Russian travel documents from the 1830s; now, from the same time period, you’ll see documents in Russian and Arabic.  In March, we’ll make another change.

Each document rests on a sheet of acid-free paper, as a barrier between the exhibit case surface (and other documents). These passports will go into storage, with others taking their place on display.

Each document rests on a sheet of acid-free paper, as a barrier between the exhibit case surface (and other documents). These passports will go into storage, with others taking their place on display.

Paper, like many historic materials, is very susceptible to light.  Light damage is cumulative and irreversible; it fades inks, alters colors, and weakens the structural integrity of the paper itself. Museums and libraries have to maintain a delicate balance between making items available for research, display, and enjoyment . . . and keeping them safely tucked away for posterity in a nice dark, climate-controlled, secure environment. We often compromise by restricting the length of time certain items can be on display, and by lighting the space with a minimum of foot-candles – this translates to short, dimly lit exhibits. Perhaps you’ve visited exhibits of textiles, books, or photographs, and wondered, “Why did they make it so dark in here?” Now you know!

Why the blue gloves? They’re made of nitrile rubber, an inert material, and prevent the natural oils etc. on your skin from transferring to the document.

Why the blue gloves? They’re made of nitrile rubber, an inert material, and prevent the natural oils etc. on your skin from transferring to the document.

Want to learn more? Check out this article on protecting paper on exhibit, from the Northeast Document Conservation Center.

JoannaA blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts from Joanna click HERE.

 

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




From Flat to Fluffy: The Conservation of Rabbi Szold’s hat

Posted on November 7th, 2013 by


If you are too young to know about Breck shampoo—or if you just want to reminisce about 1970s hair products—check out this Youtube video. 

Incorporating original objects from the JMM permanent collection in exhibitions—especially traveling exhibitions—is an important way to bring the focus to Jewish life in Maryland. This was particularly true with Passages through the Fire: Jews and the Civil War. Maryland was truly a boarder state during the Civil War and Jews were as divided as other groups when choosing sides. While I knew about his role on the pulpit in Baltimore, I was surprised to learn that Rabbi Benjamin Szold was asked to intercede on behalf of Private George Kuhn, a young Jewish Union deserter. Although Szold was unsuccessful, he remained with the young man until he was executed.

You can see an original copy of this Harper’s Weekly depicting the aforementioned execution in the Passages through Fire exhibition.

You can see an original copy of this Harper’s Weekly depicting the aforementioned execution in the Passages through Fire exhibition.

In addition to the trunk that Szold used when he emigrated from Breslau, the Museum also owns the black velvet hat he wore at about the time he was recruited by Temple Oheb Shalom in 1859. This artifact was perfect for the The Minhag America section of the exhibition, explaining the diverse practices in each Jewish community at the start of the Civil War.

1998.115.2  A portrait of Rabbi Benjamin Szold

1998.115.2 A portrait of Rabbi Benjamin Szold

Unfortunately, the hat was in poor condition and could not be exhibited without conservation. As evidenced in the photo below, the velvet was completely split, and falling off the hat to expose a yellow/brown padding structure beneath, which too had tears, soiling, and damage. In addition to holes, the shape of the hat was distorted and crushed, and there was a considerable amount of dust accumulated across the surface!

Demonstrating that the black velvet is literally being held on by a thread.

Demonstrating that the black velvet is literally being held on by a thread.

 It looks like a toupee!

It looks like a toupee!

Conservation work can be time consuming and expensive—which is why the JMM only conserves select items, usually in conjunction with an exhibition. The American Institution of Conservation website was helpful in identifying specialized conservators by location. After we approved her treatment proposal, textile conservator Julia Brennan worked on Rabbi Szold’s hat. In her treatment report Julia explained the process of her work:

·         The hat was humidified over several days in an enclosed chamber to slowly introduce moisture into the fabric. This made the hat more malleable, and throughout the humidification process it was gradually manipulated from its collapsed shape to its original shape. As the hat softened, it was gently filled out with tissue to hold the shape.

·         The hat really took its original shape and the velvet is much more relaxed and supple.

·         Large, split areas of the hat were lined with black cotton for stability. The split edges were then re-aligned and hand sewn to the black cotton with hand stitching, using a color-matched Skala thread. It was necessary to have the supports, as the velvet edges are too brittle to attach to each other.

Left, a split, broken area lined with black cotton. Right, the area stitched back into place. A small seam of the cotton is visible.

Left, a split, broken area lined with black cotton. Right, the area stitched back into place. A small seam of the cotton is visible.

·         In a large area where the velvet was missing entirely, a new piece of carefully matched black velvet was inserted and stitched into place with hand stitching. This fills the hole, and makes the hat more complete and attractive.

Left, a large hole in the hat. Right, the hole with new black velvet inserted to mask the hole.

Left, a large hole in the hat. Right, the hole with new black velvet inserted to mask the hole.

Our biggest concern with the Szold hat was whether it would be stable enough for exhibition after treatment. In addition to conserving the hat, Julia built a custom support to keep it in its original, stable shape. The support consists of four parts:

1. A “donut” made of cotton stockinette and batting, exactly fitting the main body of the hat. This will prevent the velvet from the stress of collapsing, which contributed to the original splits.

2. A small, dome shaped piece made of ethafoam and batting, covered in a non-abrasive black stretch fabric. This supports the center of the body of the hat, which the donut does not support.

3. A flat disc made of ethafoam, batting, and black stretch fabric fit to the exact dimensions of the hat brim. This keeps the brim straight, preventing further wrinkling and making current wrinkling less obvious.

4. A second, taller disc for the entire supported hat to sit on, also made of ethafoam, batting, and covered in a cream colored stretch fabric. This elevates the hat when its other support pieces are in place so the brim does not touch the resting surface. It can also be used for display purposes. Or not.

Interior Support

Interior Support

Right Side Up

Right Side Up

The hat has undergone a complete transformation! It is no longer limp and torn. It’s gone from Flat to Fluffy.

In the “Results and Recommendations” section of her report Julia cautions that the velvet is still extremely brittle, an irreversible problem. Some small splits remain in the velvet because the repair process is so stressful to the fabric that repairing them would cause more harm than good. The hat must be handled with extreme delicacy and caution, or more splits will occur, and current splits may get larger. The hat should be kept in a carefully monitored environment with low light. Cleaning should only be done by a conservation professional due to the delicacy of the fabric.

I got this travel sized Breck shampoo when I stayed at the Channel Inn in DC for the MAAM conference in October. It really makes your hair fluffy! Just don’t use it on historic artifacts.

I got this travel sized Breck shampoo when I stayed at the Channel Inn in DC for the MAAM conference in October. It really makes your hair fluffy! Just don’t use it on historic artifacts.

Rabbi Szold’s hat is on view in the Passages through the Fire exhibition on view now at the JMM. Funding for this important project was made possible by the Associated.

JobiA blog post by Senior Collections Manager Jobi Zink. To read more posts by Jobi click here.

Posted in jewish museum of maryland




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