Category Archives: Artifacts and Archives

Blog posts include anything that involves items from the artifact and/or archives collection of the Historical Society.

Using the Code

Letter in Cipher, Benjamin Tallmadge to George Washington, July 28, 1779, Helga J. Ingraham Memorial Library, Litchfield Historical Society

One of the spycraft methods employed by Benjamin Tallmadge and the Culper Ring was the use of a code. Tallmadge developed a code dictionary and shared it with General Washington. Although this dictionary is not part of our collection, we are fortunate to be able to access Washington’s copy, now preserved by the Library of Congress. A transcribed version is available on the Mount Vernon website.

Continue reading

Inside the Collections – Fighting Fires in Early America

Note: This is the first of an ongoing series of articles featuring objects from our upcoming exhibit, Antiquarian to Accredited: A Look Inside the Historical Society. Check back often for new objects and articles!

Fine examples of nineteenth-century painted fire buckets. Courtesy of Schwenke Auctions

First, let’s set the scene, courtesy of HBO’s miniseries John Adams. Adams, played by Paul Giamatti, has just returned to his Boston home when he hears church bells and shouting coming from the streets—sure signs that a fire has broken out. He rushes outside, carrying a leather bucket to a nearby water pump only to find the pump encased in ice. Two men struggle to push a hand tub (an early form of fire engine) down the street, calling for Adams’s help when it tips over. After righting the tub, Adams dashes through the crowded street to the next water pump. Before he can fill his bucket, the sound of a gunshot cuts through the night air.

If you have seen the series, you know what happens next. There was no fire that night, despite the ringing bells and commotion in the streets. Adams instead witnesses the aftermath of the Boston Massacre, setting the stage for his successful trial defense of the British soldiers involved (the story arc of the first episode). Setting aside any discussion of the show’s historical accuracy, it’s opening scene provides a vivid depiction of what it was like to fight fires in early America.

Notice of a bucket brigade gone awry. The Hartford Daily Courant, November 20, 1848.

Our focus here is the rather plain-looking object that Adams was carrying: a leather fire bucket. The fire bucket is a wonderful example of a utilitarian object that can tell diverse stories.

Continue reading

An Anglo-American Friendship: John Masefield’s Letters to Miss Dorothy Bull

John Masefield’s Letters to Litchfield

By Barbara Potter, Litchfield Historical Society

The first of his mid-April letters to Dorothy Bull (1888-1934), on April 20, 1917, was a sad and simple plea for more letters.  Brief, mournful, to the point.

The second, penned some 24 hours later, is John Masefield’s (1878-1967) enthusiastic reply to Bull’s latest letter.  The reply conveys his elation but is stuffed with starched enthusiasm and jaunty catchphrases prompting questions to fly from the folder in which both letters sit, washed up into their jarring juxtaposition.

English: John Masefield (1878-1967) Portrait by Mary Dale Clarke


The juxtaposition seems important.  We just aren’t sure why.  We, at the Litchfield Historical Society, don’t even know questions to ask.  So will share what little we know follow it with a future post.

John Masefield wrote Dorothy Bull at least 94 times.  Masefield wrote a 95th letter to her brother after his return from Australia, in 1935.  In that letter Masefield echoed sentiments shared by locals at Bull’s death a year earlier.  She was a good person, they said without exception.  Of all Masefield letters to Dorothy Bull, his ‘line’ of the 20th of April is singularly, palpably sad.  Like an exclamation point that leaps off of a page.

Masefield expressed the same sadness to other, more important correspondents while conducting his unpaid research on the Somme’s battlefields in the spring of 1917.

Foremost among them was Masefield’s wife Constance (Letters from the Front: 1915-1917, Peter Vansittart, 1984). Masefield wrote her almost daily.  He wrote detailed, reports about the war’s progress, war crimes, field actions, conditions and fortifications, and the remains strewn across battlefields all along the Somme’s war zone.  These letters appear to have been written without a shred of self-censorship and little or no B.E.F. Field Censor filtering.  But then these were the letters of an Englishman to his English wife.  Relative to Masefield’s Anglo-American letters of the same period there seems to be no comparison in terms of candor and content.

Masefield also wrote to Florence Corliss from the Somme.  He wrote the American heiress, and wife of prominent American banker Thomas William Lamont, nearly 2,200 times between 1916 and 1952.  At the beginning of April 1917, Masefield noted, to his wife Constance, that Florence Lamont “surpasses herself” by sharing her knowledge about the United States’ declaration of war.  For this or, perhaps, for other reasons, Masefield’s letters to Lamont may have undergone lighter international censorship than letters to other Americans such as Bull.

But we just can’t know.

What we do know is that Masefield’s April 20th letter to Bull conveys a sadness nowhere else so clearly expressed in this Collection.  And it is a letter written one day apart from the letter bearing Masefield’s great (most brittle?) good cheer.

So we’re left wondering what happened in Masefield’s mind during this period.  Was he trying to paper over impressions expressed to Bull the preceding day?  Was he self-censoring his thoughts so assiduously they would sail past the toughest B.E.F. Field Censors with the pace of a military march?

We don’t know.

American: Dorothy Bull (1888-1934)

Bull wouldn’t see Masefield until the following winter, when he came to lecture across the U.S. and visit U.S. military camps with recruits preparing for war.   But it seems quite possible that, in 1918, the failed debutante and aspiring writer reframed her probing questions for England’s successful poet and battlefield chronicler.

We wish we knew the whereabouts of Bull’s letters to Masefield.

But we don’t.

They might have answered some of our questions.  But they might not.

Perhaps all of them went the way of the wind in the stretch of time when many Masefield papers came to special collections at Harvard and Columbia.  Perhaps not.

In any event, we all feel privileged for the tiny peek Dorothy Bull and her family gave us…into the mind of an Englishman with courage enough to explore a real waste land four or five years before T.S. Eliot penned the immortal opening lines of his 1922 poem:  “April is the cruellest month.”

The finding aid for this collection is a work in progress. You may view it here. We are also working to digitize the collection and will let you know when the images are available in the Connecticut Digital Archives.

“Can the Kaiser” – Food Preservation in World War I America

By J.J. Hutton, Curatorial Intern

J. Paul Verrees, 1918. Collection of the Litchfield Historical Society.

By 1917, the European powers had been at war for three years, and their people were feeling the effects in every aspect of their lives. Even vital necessities like food were not guaranteed, and millions of soldiers and civilians alike faced starvation. Many of the farmers had left the fields for the front and the farms near battlefields were trampled or shelled. In an attempt to exacerbate the food crisis in Britain, Germany re-implemented unrestricted submarine warfare on February 1, 1917. This soon brought the United States out of neutrality and officially into the war because American ships (often bringing donated supplies and food to the UK) were now being attacked by Germany with no warning.

Charles Livingston Bull, 1918. Collection of the Litchfield Historical Society.

After the United States entered the war, the government began expanding in order to better orchestrate the country’s war effort. In order to oversee the production and distribution of food Congress enacted the Food and Fuel Control Act, also known as the Lever Act, on August 10, 1917. This act authorized the creation of the US Food Administration. The USFA’s responsibilities were to encourage Americans to use less food in order to better supply both American soldiers and their European allies as well as to prevent hoarding and monopolies. President Wilson appointed Herbert Hoover as the head of the Food Administration. Prior to this the future President had been the chairman of the Commission for Belgian Relief, which coordinated donations and delivered them to the starving people of German-occupied Belgium. In his new role Hoover had authority over all things food in the country, so much so that he was nicknamed the “food czar”. Hoover’s goal was to appeal to the sense of American volunteerism rather than coerce conservation through mandatory rationing. When he took the position as head of the USFA, Hoover implored Americans to “Go back to simple food, simple clothes, simple pleasures. Pray hard, work hard, sleep hard and play hard. Do it all courageously and cheerfully.” (Archives). Hoover sought to cater to American values and patriotism in order to maximize wartime efficiency and minimize negative backlash towards the programs.

Continue reading

Anson’s Brother: Portrait Miniatures by Daniel Dickinson

Article written by Molly Ford, Curatorial Intern.

Daniel Dickinson (1795-c.1866) was born on October 20th in 1795 in Milton, Connecticut, to Anna Landon and Oliver Dickinson, Jr. He was the younger brother of well-known portrait miniature painter Anson Dickinson. His father Oliver was also an amateur portrait painter. Daniel Dickinson grew up with his siblings Anson (1779-1852), Raphael (1781-1837), Ambrose (1783-1806), Lucinda (1785-?), Leonard (1788-1824), Henry (1790-?), Anna (1792-1792), Anna Landon (1798-?) and Andrew (1801-1883), and his parents in Milton, a village located on the banks of the Shepaug River in the township of Litchfield. In Milton, he was apprenticed to become a silversmith like Anson, but also like Anson, Daniel abandoned the craft to paint portrait miniatures.

Portrait miniature of unidentified gentleman, attributed to Daniel Dickinson. Recently acquired by the Litchfield Historical Society.

Daniel is believed to have studied in New Haven, Connecticut in about 1812. There, he studied draftsmanship from drawings and books with the brothers Nathaniel (1796-1881) and Simeon Smith Jocelyn (1746-1823). While there, Daniel was almost unconsciously drawn into miniature portrait painting, and in his experimental years at school he created fancy sketches that were very attractive and popular. These sketches mostly consisted of female figures in graceful positions. Daniel Dickinson wrote himself that “I have employed my leisure time in fancy subjects, such as might best illustrate female beauty and grace”.

Because his work was so popular in New Haven and showed much potential, after his schooling he moved to Philadelphia to paint portraits and miniatures, which he did from 1818 to 1846. He was exhibited annually at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and regularly at the Artists’ Fund Society, as he was a member himself. He became very successful and well-patronized in Philadelphia, so he remained there for a great number of years.

On his painting style, Dickinson wrote, “I adopted a style between my brother Anson’s, Malbone’s and J. Wood’s, fifteen years after my brother commenced”. This style included a feigned landscape background, and a more fashionable rectangular format. Daniel’s miniatures are often mistaken for his brother’s work; however, Daniel’s style differs in that he worked with a broader and more painterly brushstroke than Anson, which left the effect of a freer, less controlled presentation of hair and clothing. Also, his faces were strongly modeled, with deep contrasts between light and dark areas. His main method of creating portrait miniatures was watercolor on ivory. Daniel also advanced to painting on some larger canvases and oil portraits around 1830.

An example of Daniel Dickinson’s trade label, found inside the case of a recently auctioned portrait miniature.

In 1847, Daniel moved to nearby Camden, New Jersey, and as the years went by and his success dwindled due to the rapid development of photography. Soon after, he abandoned his career as a portrait painter and devoted himself to horticulture. In Camden, he opened a rose and grape nursery in 1850. Daniel Dickinson died in 1866 in Litchfield, Connecticut.