Posted on May 18th, 2015 by Rachel
I became involved in the development for The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen as I have a background in Egyptology, it isn’t something I ever expected to use when I started working at the JMM but recently it has been put to good use. In addition to working on the exhibit I have been able to plan a few programs that also draw on this knowledge.
Last month we held an Ancient Egypt family day here at the Museum. We wanted to make sure it wasn’t just the usual discussion of mummification but something that would teach some of the skills needed by an early Egyptologist like Mendes. We planned a series of interconnected activities that showed some of the process an archaeologist follows.
Understanding how to excavate was our first aim, everyone received their own archaeological dig to excavate. We started by carefully dividing the site into sections, these would be essential for recording our finds accurately . As we dug we also spoke about the importance of stratigraphy and how it helps to date a site and the objects we find.
Due to some careful planning everyone found the remains of two ceramic vessels which were carefully recorded and collected for the next stage.
This was an important part of the day that really taught some practical skills. We examined the pieces we found, discussing rim sherds especially. We looked at how they can be used to create a better impression of how a vessel may have originally looked, especially the size of the vessel. We also discussed why ceramics are such a common find on archaeological sites and what they can reveal.
Once we gathered as much information as possible regarding our sherds we stared the process of reconstruction, this took a lot of patience and a little creative thinking, but eventually we were able to reconstruct our precious artefacts!
The one thing that no Ancient Egypt day would be complete without is of course hieroglyphs. All of the materials that were excavated came ready inscribed with their ‘original’ contents, including bread, beer, cobras and fish. Once the translation was done we took the opportunity to do some writing in hieroglyphs ourselves.
Finally we explored some of the types of object an archaeologist might discover. Most of the material that survives from Ancient Egypt, including all of the antiquities on display in The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen, were originally intended for a funerary context. So we decided to make a few grave goods of our own including this fantastic death mask and some shabtis.
If you missed out on Egypt Day don’t worry! We have another great family day planned for June 14th, the closing day of The A-Mazing Mendes Cohen and Flag Day.
A blog post by Programs Manager Trillion Attwood. To read more posts from Trillion click HERE.
Posted on April 20th, 2015 by Rachel
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.
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.
“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.
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.
(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.
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.
A blog post by Collections Manager Joanna Church. To read more posts from Joanna click HERE.
Posted on April 6th, 2015 by Rachel
Through our visitor’s thoughtful (and sometimes playful) questions, we are all learning more and more about Mendes, as an individual and as a representative of what life was like for the early Jewish Americans.
1) Did Mendes like sports?
Not that we know of…there’s no mention of sports in his letters.
2) Is there a connection between Mendes Cohen and the McKim Center of Baltimore? (Since the McKim Free School opened around the time of his childhood.)
The McKim Free School was a Quaker institution that was begun in 1821, by which time Mendes was 24 years old and not at all a child. We have no record of him being involved as a donor either.
If you want to learn more about the McKim Community Center or Free School, visit their website: http://www.mckimcenter.org.
The McKim School
3) How old was Mendes when he died?
Mendes Cohen was 84 years old when he died 1879.
4) Did Mendes keep kosher?
We believe that the family observed religious traditions in their home in Baltimore, but we don’t have actual confirmation that they kept kosher (which would have been difficult but not impossible during the early 1800s). There is some debate about whether kosher food provisions were provided during his service at Fort McHenry. Again, this is not something we can confirm, but it is possible since the father of another Jewish member of his militia was a shochet. During his travels, Mendes most likely did not eat kosher as that would have been quite difficult.
5) What were his siblings’ names?
- Joshua (died as a baby at 3 months)
- Jacob (1789-1869)
- Solomon (died as a baby)
- Philip (1793-1852)
- Maria (1794-1821)
- Benjamin (1797-1845)
- David (1800-1847)
- Joshua (1801-1870)
- Edward (died as a baby at 8 months)
6) Did Mendes know any dragons? (asked by Elliot the Dragon)
Sadly, no letters mention dragon encounters (but maybe that letter got lost and we can hope!)
A secret dragon meeting perhaps?
What questions are on your mind?
Let us know!