Published: July 24, 2001
Within these Walls:
WASHINGTON, D.C. – Through its newest exhibition “Within These Walls…,” the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History showcases 200 years of American history as seen from the doorstep of one house that stood from Colonial days through the mid-1960s in Ipswich, Mass. The 4,200-square-foot exhibition highlights five ordinary families whose lives within the walls of the house became part of the great changes and events of the nation’s past.
The largest artifact in the museum, the Georgian-style 2½ – story timber-framed house was built in the 1760s, just 30 miles north of Boston, and stood at 16 Elm Street until 1963, when efforts by Ipswich citizens saved it from the bulldozer.
Today, the house is the centerpiece of “Within These Walls…” and visitors will be able to peer through its walls, windows, and doors to view settings played out against the backdrop of Colonial America, the American Revolution, the abolitionist movement, the industrial era, and World War II.
The exhibition’s curatorial team researched nearly 100 occupants who once lived in the house. Their stories show some of the ways Americans have made history in their kitchens and parlors. Inside this house, American colonists created a new genteel lifestyle, patriots set out to fight the Revolution, and an African-American struggled for freedom. Neighbors came together to end slavery, immigrants made a new home and earned a livelihood, and a woman and her grandson served on the home front during World War II.
For the exhibition, portions of three rooms and the entrance hall have been restored and furnished with period pieces to show activities that would have taken place in the house. As visitors tour the exhibition, they will see more than 100 objects, including a rare Revolutionary War uniform, an Eighteenth Century tea table, an anti-slavery almanac and the Wedgwood Anti-Slavery Medallion, and World War II-era cookbooks, posters, and a “blackout” kit. There are also interactive activities and audio experiences, including a Nineteenth Century laundry simulation, tactile models of the house, and examples of early American building techniques, such as mortise and tenon joints and moldings.
Rich in its history, the main section of the house was built in the 1760s for Abraham Choate. He purchased the lot for his home in 1757, in the center of Ipswich, then one of the busiest ports in the colonies. Choate, a gentleman merchant, attached a structure, built about 1710, to his house. The new home provided enough room for Choate’s eight children. Other owners added a two-story addition and one-story sheds in the 1800s.
The Choate parlor, elegantly set for tea, is the first setting visitors will see. At a time in the 1700s when most people lived in small, cramped, one- to three-room houses, few families could afford the luxury of having one room elegantly finished for entertaining.
Abraham Dodge, who fought at the Battle of Bunker Hill in 1775, bought the house two years later. Looking into the entrance hall of the house, visitors will learn about a household that was transformed by the American Revolution. By 1786, the year of Dodge’s death, the Dodges were no longer British subjects and slavery had legally ended in Massachusetts. Chance, an African-American man, remained in the household as Dodge’s servant. The war years left Dodge in debt and his family was forced to sell the house after his death.
Caldwell & Heard Families
Josiah and Lucy Caldwell bought the house in 1822, and in the following decades it became a part of the most controversial social reform of their time, abolishing slavery throughout the nation. A parlor setting showcases the room as the center of the family’s religious and social life. A newspaper ad from 1839 tells visitors that Lucy hosted meetings of the Ipswich Female Anti-Slavery Society in her home.
As industrialization swept through Ipswich, the house was purchased as an investment in 1865 from the Caldwell estate by the wealthy Heard family and divided into rental apartments. Among the Irish immigrants living here were Catherine Lynch and her daughter Mary. Mary worked in a hosiery mill and Catherine took in laundry. Some years, she paid part of her rent by doing wash for the Heards. The exhibit vignette gives visitors a sense of what doing laundry was like in the 1870s and 1880s.
The final setting is the kitchen of the house, where by 1942 Mary Scott and her family were part of the war effort. Set with canning equipment, the room illustrates how Mary worked with her young grandson Richard Lynch to grow vegetables, conserve fat, and save tin cans, while her two sons went off to war.
Clues used by Smithsonian historians to uncover the stories told in the exhibition are described at the end of the show. The museum has designed a guide, titled House Detective: Finding History in Your Home, which will be available in the exhibition and through the Web site www.americanhistory.si.edu/house.
The National Museum of American History traces American heritage through cultural, social, scientific, and technical exhibitions. The museum is at 14th Street and Constitution Avenue NW, and is open daily from 10 am to 5:30 pm. For information, 202-357-3129.
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