Museums are like icebergs - very often what's on display for the world to admire is only a tiny fraction of what is actually in the collection, hidden away in storage rooms and warehouses.
This week I again visited one of my favorite historical spots in Boston, The Bostonian Society, located in the Old State House Museum. I was there at the invitation of Patricia Gilrein, Collections Manager, who brought out exquisite baby clothes from the exceptional 18th c. needle of Elizabeth Bull Price (I've already shared her wedding gown and neckerchief) that will soon merit blog posts of their own.
But I also had the chance to follow Patricia off into one of the Society's storage areas, and that's where I encountered this winsome young lady. Although she's posed like a figurehead, ready to lead a ship across the seas, she likely never saw a drop of saltwater. Instead she served as a shop display piece, a model to show off the skills of her maker: Isaac Fowle, an expert carver working from 1807-1832. His shop was at 53 Prince Street in Boston, and the business was continued by his two sons, John D. Fowle and William Henry Fowle, until 1869.
At 74" tall, the figure is larger than life. She's carved from pine, and she's painted white, perhaps to make her look more like a classical statue carved of stone. Unlike the seductive mermaids and idealized goddesses that were favorites of both 19th c. carvers and sailors, this figure looks more like a portrait of a real young woman. Perhaps she was Isaac Fowle's own wife, sweetheart, or daughter, or a young woman who worked in one of the other shops on Prince Street.
Whoever she might have been, Fowle chose to show her fashionably dressed in a button-front gown, short boots, and lace-trimmed petticoats, and the way the fabric pulls slightly across the front of her bodice (and scandal! no corset!) must have made plenty of sailors sigh. I love all the little details - the trim and border of her dress, her skirts rippling in the wind, even the brooch at her collar and the bracelet on her wrist – that make her seem almost alive.
But there's a chance she might have inspired more than shipowners and randy sailors. Tradition says this figure was seen by Massachusetts author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-1864), and that she was the inspiration for his fanciful short story "Drowne's Wooden Image" from Mosses from an Old Manse and Other Tales (1846). You can read it online here (it's a very short story), and judge for yourself.
Many thanks to Patricia Gilrein for introducing me to this delightful lady!
Lady with a Scarf, by Isaac Fowle, c 1820. The Bostonian Society. Photographs copyright 2014 Susan Holloway Scott.
There’s a big difference in how we use history. But we’re equally nuts about it. To us, the everyday details of life in the past are things to talk about, ponder, make fun of -- much in the way normal people talk about their favorite reality show.
We talk about who’s wearing what and who’s sleeping with whom. We try to sort out rumor or myth from fact. We thought there must be at least three other people out there who think history’s fascinating and fun, too. This blog is for them.