April Collections Featurette

We pride ourselves at Pennsbury Manor in providing our visitors with Hands-On History Techniques. This mode of interpretation addresses different learning styles, and in an odd way allows our visitors to “touch the past.” We have broken down a wall between old visitor experiences and fresh, new approaches. Of course, we do not allow guests to touch original objects! We utilize quality reproductions. Using the example of the pewter chamber pots in William and Hannah’s room we can see that both re-production items have widely different appearances. Why? Because one is kept pristinely polished, while the other is available to be handled – you can see this very quickly. Imagine how much luster would vanish through constant use, or how an original might be easily destroyed! And as we know, visitors are often tempted to touch the tiles that surround some of the fireplaces in the Manor House. As many of you know these tiles are original to the site, having been found archaeologically in the late 1930s. We cannot escape their presence, but must be on guard to protect them. Fortunately if you play your cards right they can be used to provide a brief opportunity to illustrate how historical interpretation has changed over time. I almost always point to them and ask visitors, “If we were to undertake the Pennsbury re-construction project in the 21st century would we use original artifacts as part of the building’s fabric?” Most people “get it” and respond with an exuberant “No!” I add, “Maybe this was one way they commemorated the past in the past. Today we would likely have the tiles re-produced locally up in Doylestown at the Moravian Tile Works, which you can visit.” We then move on.


Before heading in the direction of background information on period tiles, be reminded that archaeologist Dr. Cadzow’s surviving excavation notes make no mention of the tiles – strongly-held tradition states they were found here. That said, an inventory of household goods done in 1687 lists “1 passell of nara tyles [narrow].” Locally-made, plain floor tiles first appear in Northern Europe after the Roman departure (1600 years ago). Initially tiles would have been for the upper class domestic spaces, and religious public places. Our two tiles on display in the exhibit are 5” X 5” and about ¾ “thick. Ours are clearly of red clay, with glaze. One is green, the other a faded, yellow. One can see in the exhibit that the color of the tiles’ base is what most call “brick red.” It is generally accepted “the redder and thicker the body, the older the tile.”  According to our exhibit panel text the tiles were “shipped from Europe.” Considering the advances at the time in ceramics, glazes, and desire for artistic expression our tiles are rather subdued.


It is possible that these tiles were purchased primarily with utility in mind, rather than for purely decorative use. If originally used to surround a fireplace they provided a much easier surface to keep clean from soot and ash. Documented use of tiles on either side of doorways to reduce “finger-marks,” and applied at the intersection of walls and floors as a kind of baseboard has been noted in Holland. Might William Penn have seen this in his travels across Europe? How do you invite visitors to “touch the past?”


[1] Cadzow, Donald, “Archaeological Preliminary Report (1932-1935).” On file in Pennsbury Collections area. Thanks to Curator Todd Galle for assistance.

[2] Cummings, Hubertis M., “An Account of Goods at Pennsbury Manor, 1687”, Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography, (Vol. 86, 1962, p. 415).

[3] Wilcoxen, Charlotte. Dutch Trade and Ceramics in America in the Seventeenth Century. (Albany, NY: Albany Institute of History & Art, 1987), p. 70.

[4] Ibid., p. 70.

[5] Thornton, Peter. Seventeenth-Century Interior Decoration in England, France & Holland. (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1978), p. 74.


Penn’s Pen: A New Featurette!!

We know our volunteers don’t always have the time to read William Penn’s letters and pamphlets, so we will be posting interesting excerpts from his writings for you in Penn’s Pen:  Excerpts from the writings of William Penn.

This excerpt is from “Some Account of the Province of Pennsylvania,” a promotional tract to encourage people to emigrate to America.  Written in 1681, Penn had not actually seen his colony himself, yet here he offers an optimistic outlook for potential settlers:

Next being, by the mercy of God, safely arrived in September or October, two men may clear as much ground by spring (when they set the corn of that country) as will bring in that time, twelve month, forty barrels, which amounts to two hundred bushels, which makes twenty-five quarters of corn.  So that the first year they must buy corn, which is usually very plentiful.  They may, so soon as they come, buy cows, more or less, as they want or are able, which are to be had at easy rates.  For swine, they are plentiful and cheap; those will quickly increase to a stock.  So that after the first year, what with the poorer sort sometimes laboring to others, and the more able fishing, fowling, and sometimes buying, they may do very well, till their own stocks are sufficient to supply them and their families…

March Collections Featurette

Don’t Flip Your Wig!

By Jim Cawley

As historic site guides and interpreters we not only tell stories to our wonderful visitors but show them the “stuff’ of the past, as well. Here is a technique that I was recently enthusiastically encouraged to share.

“This is my favorite object” usually gets visitors’ attention. I suggest that you share your favorite object with our guests. Like many of you, I have one; mine is located in (Well, since I am the new kid on the block who has not seen everything quite yet I’ll call it my current favorite object.) the Penn’s bed chamber: the wig stand, (It turns out it is not part of our permanent holdings but from a New York collector). This object immediately struck me as a fine example of the turner’s art. Our stand is 31 3/4 inches tall, graceful and appears to be made from a soft wood. It is painted black possibly to imitate mahogany or ebony, thus giving it a sense of elegance. Keep in mind that tastes for the exotic increased as Europeans began colonization. Access to new materials provided artisans outlets for creativity and customers with new goods.

Formal portraits show us that in late-seventeenth century Europe men were wearing their hair long. By the era of the American Revolution hair had become shorter. (Another article may appear talking in general terms about changes in fashion during the Penns’ era.) Wigs were popular in both periods. Male fashions were set by royalty.  Monarchs had expectations for visitors’ appearance. They seemed to have wanted to control the pleasing visual aspect of life at court. During William Penn’s time men were encouraged to wear luxurious wigs; quite long wigs became the fad. Some extended below shoulder-length. [The wig that our stand could support would reach my waistband!] As an example, take a look at the King’s portrait in the Great Hall. Co-incidentally, Charles II and William Penn were balding. As a small child Penn contracted smallpox and was left with partial hair loss.

As Philadelphia developed at a very rapid pace, many tradesman and artisans set up shop to take advantage of the growth. The city soon acquired a wood turner (who was also a saddler) named Henry Furnis who set up shop in one of the caves along the river. Penn wanted folks out of them – and quick! We have correspondence between Penn and Furnis in which we see that the shopkeeper was offered rental space owned by the proprietor. Mr. Furnis felt this to be an inconvenience because he needed to be near woodlands to acquire materials for his trade. Think about the last time you saw a wig stand. Likely it was made of plastic or Styrofoam – and NOT turned! My how times have changed…

You can now see that we can use objects to make deeper connections to the past for visitors. With a simple wig stand we can tell the story of changes in fashion, expanding empires, and even employment among tradesmen. Oh, and shopping! Hhhmmm, do you think we should offer wig stands in our Gift Shop?