How Americans lived `After the Revolution'

It's like creeping through a time warp, then suddenly stumbling through a door into the 1793 log house of a Delaware farm couple named John and Elizabeth Springer. There is a scarred oak table, surrounded by Windsor chairs, a brown cradle, fireplace with copper kettle, a double bed with a plaid-cover warming pan under it, a cupboard filled with pewterware: a simple, homey room. It's one of the walk-in glimpses of how Americans lived ``After the Revolution'' of 1776. And it's one of the highlights of a new permanent exhibition by that name at the National Museum of American History.

We learn that when Elizabeth Springer died, leaving Thomas with their two daughters, he married a woman named Margaret. When Margaret was left a widow, she inherited one-third of the farm profits and ``the white-faced cow.''

The home of the Springers of New Castle County is among the six sections of this exhibition, which focuses on a ``fanfare for the common man,'' to borrow composer Aaron Copland's phrase. Instead of the heroes and politicians of the period, the exhibition concentrates on the ordinary people of early America and how they lived.

One of the most poignant exhibits in the section devoted to African-Americans in the Chesapeake includes just one object: a thick iron chain several feet long, which clasped with a necklace around the neck of a slave, then trailed lengths of chain by which he was led. We learn in a section entitled ``The African Diaspora'' that between 13 million and 30 million Africans were brought to the New World as slaves.

On one wall hang the words of Venture Smith, an ex-slave who wrote at 69: ``Meg, the wife of my youth, whom I married for love, and bought with my own money, is still alive. My freedom is a privilege nothing else can equal.''

A third section, on a Chesapeake planter family, begins with a large scrim of the outside of Henry and Anne Saunders's 1797 shuttered plantation house. The scrim lightens and we see suddenly the gull-gray parlor of the house in Isle of Wight County, Va., filled with Chippendale mahogany furniture and a suggestion of the affluence enjoyed by Saunders as owner of 10 slaves and 1,000 acres of land. There are few hints in the reconstructed house as to why suddenly and mysteriously Henry Saunders murdered his wife, but it's recorded in the exhibit.

A separate section on the Seneca nation includes a painting of the Iroquois tribal lore on the creation of the earth. According to the legend, the original tribal beings lived in a world above the sky. When a huge uprooted tree left a gap through which earth's ocean could be glimpsed, the chief's pregnant wife fell through the hole, landing on a turtle's back. What fell through after her created earth, so the legend is that ``the earth sits on grandmother turtle's back.''

Cornhusk dolls, clothing, war clubs, tools, and other artifacts are included among the 55 objects from the Seneca Nation, the largest of the six nations of the Iroquois Confederacy.

The life styles of the rich and not-quite-famous are reflected in the exhibit on ``A Yankee Merchant Family'' from Longmeadow, Mass. A reconstructed parlor as it might have been furnished by Samuel and Lucy Colton of Longmeadow is full of burnished pine paneling, a Boston secretary desk with a quill for writing, English creamware, and other antique furniture. Colton owned two ships, the Speedwell and the Friendship, which carried goods like molasses from the West Indies, textiles and ceramics from England, pewter, earthenware, and tools from rural America. At one point he charged such high prices in his Longmeadow store that the townspeople had their own small revolution, took it over, and repriced the goods for what they thought fair.

The last section of the permanent exhibit on ``After the Revolution'' deals with the port city of Philadelphia and includes a grab bag of what historians love to call artifacts, from the gold-headed cane that Benjamin Franklin gave to George Washington to a tavern area to displays on historic churches, printing presses, and ``mantuamakers,'' dressmakers who specialized in costumes generally made of cloth from Mantua, Italy.

The exhibition, which covers 10,000 square feet and includes 1,000 artifacts, is interesting and at times vivid. But it lacks the excitement that has packed viewers into two recent blockbuster shows here, ``Treasure Houses of Britain'' and the ``Aditi'' show from India.

This show begins with a brief visual exhibit, much like a movie, shown on a screen at the entrance at regular time intervals. Don't miss it; it's a delight to the eye and mind. After the lights go up and the screen disappears, you step into John and Elizabeth Springer's log house.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to How Americans lived `After the Revolution'
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today