Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Camera Which Shall Be Wholly Concealed

By Douglas Kendall, Curator of Collections

These days, cameras are everywhere. Wherever there’s a smart phone, there’s a camera. Sales of dedicated cameras are down; the almost-universal acceptance of the camera in a phone has even affected recently chic devices such as the Flip Video camera, which is going out of production.

The only thing really new about this phenomenon of cameras that don’t look like cameras is its ubiquity. There must have been a demand for concealed cameras early in the development of photography. By the 1880s, inventors had created cameras designed to look like hats, satchels, books, binoculars, walking sticks and (my personal favorite) revolvers. Pulling a camera that looks like a gun seems like a sure way to reduce the population of photographers quickly.

Cooperstown’s own Arthur Telfer, whose photographs can be seen via the Fenimore Art Museum’s Collections page, owned a camera designed to be hidden behind the photographer’s vest. The disc-shaped design was patented by Robert D. Gray of New York City in 1886; he soon sold the patent to one C. P. Stirn. The camera was manufactured for and marketed by Stirn & Lyon of New York and was also sold in Germany. The relatively thin disc was held behind a man’s vest; the lens aligned with a buttonhole.

Vest Camera
Nickel-plated brass
Made for Stirn & Lyon, New York, NY, ca. 1888
Gift of Arthur J. Telfer, N0064.1945. Photo: Douglas Kendall

How did the Vest Camera work in practice? The directions made it sound simple: “place it under the coat or vest in such a manner as to show only the lens, which, in the shape of a button, is fastened in a button-hole, thus giving the Camera a firm, steady position. In order to secure a good, clear picture, place your right hand over the vest exactly where the Camera is hidden, point the lens toward the centre of the object to be photographed and, by pulling with your left hand on the string hanging from the lower part of the Camera, you secure the first picture. Now turn the centre screw or button of the Camera with the dart to No. 2, which causes the Dry Plate to change its position and makes it ready for the next picture; continue thus until six pictures are taken and after that change the Plate for a new one in the dark-room and again you are ready for six more pictures."

I have to wonder how long the secretive camera bug would be able to maintain the deception while engaged in all those awkward hand movements. But apparently the idea of the Vest Camera captivated a lot of Americans. The company’s ads claimed that 13,000 had been sold within two years of Gray’s patent. In 19th century terms, it was probably nearly as big a sensation as the Flip was in the 21st century. It’s not clear how long the craze lasted, but specialized accessories were still being introduced in 1889.

“C. P. Stirn’s Patent Concealed Vest Camera”
Advertisement for the C.P. Sterns, Concealed Vest Camera, published in the April issue of Scribners magazine, 1889. Found at: Historic Camera

We don’t know why Arthur Telfer acquired a Concealed Vest Camera, but he kept it until 1945, when he gave it to the New York State Historical Association, parent of the Fenimore Art Museum. A few years later, Telfer gave NYSHA the entire collection of glass-plate negatives taken by him and his predecessor and partner, Washington Smith, beginning in 1853.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

New York State Postcards

By Susan Deer, Associate Librarian, Head of Tech Services, New York State Historical Association Library

The NYSHA Research Library’s “New York State Postcards Collection” has quietly been growing over the past 60+ years, to its current size of 22,800 postcards, contained in 12 cubic feet of cabinet space. Postcards are often overlooked as a source of historical documentation.

Library volunteers, Lu Gotti and Richard Johnson, have worked since last year inventorying the collection so that an accurate description could be entered into Pathfinder (our web-based catalog) and WorldCat (an international online catalog).

Descriptions of the NYS Postcards can be seen here, then search under the SUBJECT: postcards new york state. Better yet, come to the Special Collections Reading Room on the 3rd floor of the library to see the entire collection and search for a topic of interest to you. A library staff person will be there to assist you.

Here are a few examples of digitized postcards from the collection:

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Docents Teaching Docents

By Nancy Karaman, Volunteer Services Coordinator

What a great time our docent group had on Tuesday! First of all we were all busy taking notes during Pru Stelling's presentation on the Van Bergen overmantle.

It is such a popular focal point in Fenimore Art Museum and many visitors often spend extra time looking at all its many aspects. Pru helped us all to more deeply understand the piece as much for its historic depictions as its artistic value.

After her presentation we were treated to Louise Gomez and her in depth tour of Shadow Catcher: Edward Curtis Among the Kwakiutl in the West Gallery.

She is currently reading Edward Curtis's 10th volume of twenty published. Louise's super presentation was following by a viewing of film entitled Coming to Light about Edward Curtis and his photographs ....fascinating film.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Batter Up!

By John Hart, Assistant Curator of Collections

I’ve haven’t always been into sports. I didn’t start watching baseball games until college (and no, I’m not saying which team I like the most) and even then it was in between homework sessions; being a history major meant a lot of reading.

Opening Day in Cooperstown doesn’t just mean the first MLB games of the year, it normally means the early days of spring and the start of warmer weather. I think Mother Nature had different ideas of that this year, though, since we were expecting upwards of a foot of snow or more between Opening Day and April 1st!

Baseball Bat, Late 19th Century, Wood, L: 30 ¼”, F0031.1960.

One of the more unique pieces in our collection related to baseball is the sculpture, Sandlot Kid, by Victor D. Salvatore. If you’ve ever been to Cooperstown and walked down Main Street near the Key Bank, you’ve seen this piece, only much larger and made of metal. NYSHA’s is plaster and is a model of the sculpture gracing downtown Cooperstown.

Sandlot Kid, 1940-1950, by Victor D. Salvatore (1885-1965), Plaster,
H: 32 5/8” x W: 15” x Depth: 10 ½”. N0039.2000

The National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, like Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers’ Museum, really gear up around this time of year offering new exhibits, exciting new activities, and even better, the signal that summer is on its way! Eventually...

Friday, April 8, 2011

Dallas, Here We Go!

By Eva Fognell, Curator of the Eugene and Clare Thaw Collection of American Indian Art

On to the 3rd stop of the national tour of Art of the American Indians: The Thaw Collection – the Dallas Museum of Art!

When I left Cherry Valley to go to Albany to catch a plane for Dallas, it was snowing! When I arrived in Dallas, I was greeted with sun and a glorious 80F! It is amazing how different the world looks when the sun is shining. Green trees and flowers lined the highway into Dallas. I arrived a few hours before I could check into my hotel so I decided to walk around and familiarize myself a bit with the neighborhood that will be my back yard for the next week.

As I was walking down the street, I saw a very colorful sign announcing that I was near the museum:

I kept walking down the street and came to an entrance:

I kept walking around the block – and there was another entrance:

Somehow neither looked like the main entrance of the museum so I followed the street and around another corner, and there it was! A HUGE frontlet looking at me. Maybe the biggest banner I have ever seen!

Very fittingly, facing the entrance is a glass mosaic by the artist, author, art historian, ethnologist and caricaturist - the multitalented Miguel Covarrubias. It is called Genesis, the Gift of Life. An amazing piece of art:

It is many years since I last read The Eagle, the Jaguar, and the Serpent - Indian Art of the Americas; North America: Alaska, Canada, the United States. Maybe looking at this mosaic every day for a few weeks will inspire me to go back to his writings.

I hope to report more from Dallas in the next few weeks as the exhibit goes up and programs and opening events take place.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Little Case of Phyfe

By Douglas Kendall, Curator of Collections

Duncan Phyfe, a Scots immigrant to New York at the turn of the 19th century, became one of America’s leading cabinetmakers in the neoclassical style. His furniture can be found today at the White House and in many leading decorative arts museums around the country.

While the Fenimore Art Museum collections don’t focus on high-style furnishings, we do own a partial set of chairs attributed to Phyfe. These Greek Revival chairs were purchased for the townhouse of Catherine DePeyster and James Livingston in New York City. Family history relates that it was originally a set of twelve (the Museum owns 8), along with a sofa, side table, worktable, and chest of drawers, all purchased from Phyfe. The family also owned a home in Cherry Valley, near Cooperstown and were given to the Museum over 40 years ago.

Side Chair Mahogany, cherry, ash, white pine, horsehair, attributed to Duncan Phyfe, New York, 1805-1810
Gift of Ralph E. Lum, Jr., N0028.1965(07). Photo: Andy Stupperich.

While the DePeyster-Livingston chairs are typical of Phyfe’s work, the Museum also owns a more unusual piece that the cabinetmaker had a part in creating. In 1826, the City of New York celebrated the completion of the Erie Canal by presenting silver commemorative medals to dignitaries who had been invited to the opening ceremonies. Charles Cushing Wright, an engraver from Utica who moved to New York City in the 1820s, created the silver medal. Special cases were commissioned from Phyfe and wood turner Daniel Karr by the Common Council to house the medals. The maple used in the boxes came from the Seneca Chief, the boat that made the ceremonial first round trip on the Erie, carrying kegs of Lake Erie water that was dumped into New York Harbor to symbolize “the marriage of the waters.”

Union of the Erie with the Atlantic.
Medal, silver. Charles Cushing Wright (1796-1854), New York, 1826.
Gift of James Fenimore Cooper, II (1858-1938), transferred from Otsego County Historical Society, N0361.1963(01). Photo: Richard Walker.

Box for Erie Canal commemorative medal. Case for medal, birdseye maple, paper.
Duncan Phyfe and Daniel Karr, New York, 1826.
Gift of James Fenimore Cooper, II (1858-1938), transferred from Otsego County Historical Society, N0361.1963(02). Photo: Richard Walker.

James Fenimore Cooper was one of the dignitaries who received a medal from the Common Council of New York City in 1826. His descendants treasured the medal and the beautiful little case made by Phyfe and Karr until it was given to the Otsego County Historical Society by Cooper’s namesake grandson in the 20th century. When the OCHS disbanded in the 1960s, the medal and its box were transferred to the Museum’s parent organization, the New York State Historical Association.

The medal and box may be seen in the Cooper Room during the 2011 season. But beginning in December 2011, it will be travelling back to the city for the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s exhibition, Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

The American Hen

By: Doug Kendall, Curator of Collections

One of the advantages of working in the Museum’s storage facility is that almost every day I may see interesting artifacts for the first time—or I should say, really see them for the first time. I may have walked by a certain shelf dozens of times but for some reason on a particular day I had a reason to notice the items stored there.

Recently, I was helping inventory and photograph our collection of dolls with Erin Richardson, the Curator of The Farmers’ Museum. On one of the shelves below the dolls we saw a group of white glass objects—table or dresser accessories but in rather unusual shapes: a cannon, a hen, a battleship and another ship topped with a man’s figure.

The objects were made of milk glass or lattimo, which is “opaque white glass, usually opacified by tin oxide or arsenic” according to the Glass Dictionary of the Corning Museum of Glass.

A closer look reveals that these household objects all commemorate an event I’ve blogged about previously: the United States’ victories in the Spanish-American War. And it turns out the donor was the same man who gave the USS Olympia pitcher noted in that post as well as the “Bathing Beauties” stoneware jug I discussed way back in 2009—Preston Bassett of Ridgefield, Connecticut.

In these six objects one finds encapsulated much of the popular feeling about the brief and successful war against Spain: one is molded in the shape of a battleship with the name Maine on the prow, representing the ship that exploded in Havana harbor and precipitated the conflict. Another battleship is ridden by the figure of Uncle Sam, while a third dish has a battleship-form base but is surmounted by a bust of Admiral Dewey, the commander of the US squadron at the Battle of Manila Bay. There’s also a round dish with a drum-like base and a cannon-shaped lid and a cup covered by an eagle.

USS Maine
Westmoreland Glass or McKee Glass, Grapeville or Jeannette, PA, 1898-1910. Gift of Preston Bassett, N0103.1976
Photo: Douglas Kendall

Uncle Sam Rides With the Navy
Westmoreland Glass or McKee Glass, Grapeville or Jeannette, PA, 1898-1910. Gift of Preston Bassett, N0102.1976
Photo: Douglas Kendall

Cannon on a Drum
Westmoreland Glass or McKee Glass, Grapeville or Jeannette, PA, 1898-1910. Gift of Preston Bassett, N0101.1976
Photo: Douglas Kendall

Perhaps most interesting, though, is another oval dish with a base textured to look like a nest and marked “The American Hen.” The lid of this piece is in the form of a bird (more like an eagle than a hen, if you ask me) with wings outstretched, sitting on three eggs marked “Porto Rico,” “Cuba,” and “Phillipines.” This piece indicates the result of the war: the acquisition (for varying periods of time) of these far-flung parts of the declining Spanish empire and the rise of the United States as an international power.

The American Hen

Westmoreland Glass or McKee Glass, Grapeville or Jeannette, PA, 1898-1910. Gift of Preston Bassett, N0104.1976. 
Photo: Douglas Kendall

These commemorative items were made in western Pennsylvania by either the Westmoreland Glass Company or the McKee Glass Company. Although some have old breaks that have been repaired with an adhesive that left stains, these remain instructive artifacts of the pride many Americans felt in their country’s arrival on the world scene back in 1898.
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