Wilton Historical Society: Objects offer a look at everyday life

An iron bathtub, a foot warmer, a pair of bathing suits, a collection of tools, a pair of wedding slippers, and a wreath of human hair. This was life in Wilton.

All these items belong to the Wilton Historical Society and are part of the organization’s anniversary exhibition 75 Objects/75 Years: Highlights from Our Permanent Collection. The show opened with a public reception March 21, and will run through Oct. 20.

The show has been put together by the historical society’s executive director, Leslie Nolan, who said that “many of the objects were in the period rooms.”

Many are everyday items and run the risk of being overlooked as visitors pass through the rooms. For example, a small pair of sewing birds dating from 1825 sat on the sewing table in one of the rooms. Sewing birds were invented in the 18th Century in England and were used to clamp fabric to a table, allowing a seamstress to hold her sewing taut with one hand while stitching with the other, according to information at the show.

“I could have done this show over and over and over and each one would have been a gem,” Ms. Nolan said, in reference to the wealth of material she had to work with. Selecting just 75 objects was a challenge.

One major piece in the show is a crazy quilt dating from about 1880. Recently restored, it is made of silk, cotton and velvet and was purchased from the Elizabeth Ambler estate.

The quilt features fine stitching, embroidery and hand-painted panels. The women who worked on the quilt gained some immortality by stitching their initials into the patterns.

Appropriately, the Lambert family is represented with an early 20th-Century portrait of the Lambert House by Henry Grinnell Thomson as well as 19th-Century portraits of Samuel Fitch Lambert, Susannah Rogers Lambert and Esther Lambert.

More impressive, however, is the portrait of Jessie Simcha Jonas Judah (Goldsmith), executed in 1794 by Ralph Earl (1751-1801).

Jessie was the wife of Samuel Judah, a merchant from one of the most notable families in New York City. In the painting she is holding a locket with a portrait of her son, Benjamin S. Judah (1760-1831).

Earl was an itinerant painter in New Haven who was also a loyalist during the Revolution. He fled to England fearing for his life, leaving his family behind. He eventually returned to the States and was promptly thrown into prison for outstanding debts. He earned his freedom by painting portraits, most notably of Mrs. Alexander Hamilton, and later earned commissions in New York and New England. Several of his paintings are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Period clothing is also on display, including a silk embroidered man’s vest and a silk gown worn by Sarah Lindsay Ferry when she was 18 years old. Made of silk fastened with buttons and loops, the waistline would have rivaled that of Scarlett O’Hara.

Made of almost as much fabric as the gown are the two bathing outfits dating from about 1910. Consisting of a blouse, skirt and knickers, these costumes were definitely not for swimming, limiting women to splashing about and wading in shallow water. The outfit would be completed with stockings, which are also shown, as well as a cap and bathing slippers. Sunscreen, had it been available, would hardly have been necessary.

The Wilton Historical Society has a fabulous collection of toys, and several are in the show, including an Aunt Jemima doll and her husband, an Uncle Mose doll, and their daughter, a Diana doll. All are gifts from the Dana Blackmar estate. The dolls were advertising vehicles for Aunt Jemima pancake flour at the beginning of the 20th Century.

One of the real oddities of the show is a wreath made of human hair, which dates from the 1800s. Such wreaths were popular pieces of handwork in both the United States and Europe as a way to memorialize loved ones. The hairs that make up this particular wreath were intricately braided, twisted and knotted into a floral pattern shaped like a horseshoe. The names of those whose hair makes up the wreath are noted on the paper background.

Another strong category in the collection is tools. Those on display here are both functional and beautiful. From the simplicity of a furrow maker to the graceful ice tongs and handsome Shaker plait mill, which was used to shape split lengths of straw into flat pieces before being woven into straw hats, their uses span agriculture, manufacturing and the necessities of everyday life. All were donated by Walter R.T. Smith of Wilton.

For a New England town to get started, Ms. Nolan said, “Walter Smith said you needed two things: a blacksmith and a minister. And Wilton had its share of blacksmiths.”

Ms. Nolan said the number of items in the show was limited to keep it from being “too cluttered.” It points out that the strongest period of the society’s collection is the 19th Century. She is hoping to expand that.

“We are not a Colonial or Victorian museum,” Ms. Nolan said. “We are a Wilton museum,” and she added that she would like to expand the collection into the 20th and 21st Centuries.

She added that in addition to marking the society’s 75th anniversary, the exhibition highlights the generosity of donors over the years.

Visiting hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 11 to 4, Sunday from noon to 4. Information: 203-762-7257 or wiltonhistorical.org.