Peale-ing Back American History: the Life of Charles Willson Peale and his Cabinet of Curiosities

In the first fan girl crush blog about Charles Willson Peale, I talked about how Peale created the first American Museum. Today, I’m talking about the rest of his life.

Part of the reason I admire Peale so much is that his attitude about life seemed to be, “I can figure that out.” If he admired a talent or a skill, he would figure out how to acquire that ability himself and work at it until he was at least proficient at the skill. At every turn, he taught what he knew to others, particularly his children. A contemporary of the founding fathers, Peale had the same zest for life and learning that Franklin and Jefferson exhibited. In fact, those three often exchanged correspondence discussing new inventions and sharing ideas on how to improve them. Until the very end of his life, Peale demonstrated this zeal for learning and a desire to share his knowledge with others.

peale8

Charles Willson Peale.

But, let’s go back to the start…

Peale was the son of a British convict who was banished to the colonies. The senior Peale moved to Annapolis and used his considerable smarts to become the headmaster of a prestigious school, where the Peale family lived and the Peale children attended the school for free. This fantastic opportunity meant that young Charles Willson Peale was exposed to many subjects that he wouldn’t normally get to experience, and he soon discovered that he loved drawing and painting, a love that stayed with him his entire life. When the elder Peale died in 1750 at the age of 41 and the family was left destitute and homeless, an old student of elder Peale took the family in. Mrs. Peale became a dress maker to earn some money. Too young to work himself, Charles would help his mother by going to town to sketch the latest styles for her.

At the ripe old age of 13, Charles and his mother decided it was time for him to earn a trade, so he was apprenticed off. The two of them discussed his options and Charles decided on saddlery. Saddlery was smelly and hard but Charles was so industrious that his master gave him extra jobs and he was actually able to save some money. His first big purchase was a pocket watch, but it stopped working almost immediately. He took it in for repair, paid a considerable sum and then the watch stopped again. So he decided to learn how watches work so he could fix it himself. This started his interest in tinkering.

peale10

Portrait of Marquis de Lafayette by Charles Willson Peale.

At 21, after considerable confusion, he was married to his first wife and the love of his life, Rachel. They lived with his mother while he was creating a successful business to compete with his former master. Unfortunately, he chose to establish his new business a little too close to his master, and to show his dissatisfaction, the old master offered to set Peale up in business by making him a loan on tools and leather. The friendly and trusting Peale took him up on his offer, only realizing the bad deal afterwards, which ended up being the cause of considerable financial troubles for years.

While on a trip to Norfolk to buy more supplies, Peale visited a man whose oil paintings were so bad that Peale thought, “I can do better.” He had never actually seen an oil painting before this visit and had nothing to use for comparison. But that didn’t matter. He was now a painter. He immediately came back to Annapolis and painted portraits of Rachel, his brother James and himself. They were so good, he got several commissions. At this point, he added sign-making to his trade using the carriage oil paint.

Rachel Weeping

Charles Willson Peale’s wife Rachel, weeping over their daughter who died of smallpox.

To continue with this new venture, he needed portrait supplies from Philadelphia. When he got to Philadelphia, Peale didn’t know how to actually paint so he couldn’t order pigments and supplies. Instead, he got a price list and said he’d come back. He then got a basic art instruction book (two volumes) from London and read that. With that new knowledge and his price list, he selected his supplies. He still had no practical knowledge, so he traded a saddle for lessons (stretching canvases, sizing a canvas, etc.) from a local artist.

In 1764, Peale joined “The Sons of Freedom” and used his artistic ability to paint their protest signs. Because of this, all the financial troubles he incurred from his original master came back to bite him. The prominent men to whom he owed money were not happy with his involvement with these colonial rabble-rousers, and they were coming for him. It was either flee or rot in jail. So, leaving a very pregnant Rachel at home, he fled to his sisters’ home. From there, he ended up on a schooner that was making a short trip to Boston to deliver corn. Eighteen months and several adventures later, Peale had developed enough skills to stave off his debts and reunite with his beloved Rachel. Shortly thereafter, he had the opportunity to study art in London for the next year.

While in London, Peale popped in on another colonist from Pennsylvania, Benjamin Franklin. This impromptu visit resulted in a great friendship that would last a lifetime. Upon returning to Pennsylvania, Peale spent the next several years building his reputation and earning commissions as a portrait painter.

peale1

Independence Hall, formerly the Pennsylvania Statehouse, as painted by Charles Willson Peale.

On July 8, 1776, Peale began his military career. He made the short walk from a newly-purchased home in Philadelphia to the statehouse to hear the Declaration of Independence being read. A month later, he joined the militia and was responsible for a group of 81 men. Before heading out to an unknown fate, Peale made the effort to check on the families of each of his 81 men, inquiring about concerns and needs while they would be away fighting. Although he and his men were not at battle long, this concern for his men continued throughout the war and did not go unappreciated by those he led. During the Battle of Princeton, Peale used saddlery skills to make moccasins for those without shoes.

During the war, Peale painted portraits of various important figures. Among them was Gilbert du Motier, know as the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette was a key figure in the American Revolution. He was commissioned as a major general and was a friend and trusted advisor to General George Washington. As Lafayette sat for his portrait, he and Peale became friends. This pattern repeated with Washington, Jefferson, Madison and many other familiar names.

Lord Cornwallis was defeated at Yorktown in 1781 which caused everyone to put candles in their windows. A young Frenchman removed two of the sashes in the windows and put up transparent pictures instead. Peale followed suit the next night and all the windows featured portraits of leaders of Yorktown. People came from all over town to see the display, which he changed out several more times. This provided a wider audience than his wealthy patrons and helped those who’d turned their back on Peale for political reasons to notice him again. This also began Peale’s career as a showman.

peale3

Advertisement for Peale’s Museum.

Before, during and after the war, Peale painted portraits of various sizes, and a year after the Battle of Yorktown, Peale added an addition onto his house to hold them all. This was the first public picture gallery in America. The portraits were of the heroes of the revolution. Included in the gallery were full-length portraits of Washington and Gerard to smaller portraits of Lafayette, Baron von Steuben, Thomas Paine, and Robert Morris. He charged no admission fee because he wanted commissions for copies but also because he wanted to inspire his fellow citizens to live up to the highest ideals of a republican form of government.

peale2

Model of Peale’s patented fireplace.

The next few years were busy. First, the portrait gallery transformed into a gallery for moving pictures, and then later became the precursor to the first natural history museum. In 1804, Peale returned to painting again, which led to the founding the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Peale received two patents and subsequently spent a great deal of time copying out the documents for others. To save time, he perfected the polygraph, which allowed the writer to pen two documents at once.

peale4

Peale is credited with patenting improvements to the original polygraph machine, which had nothing to do with truth-telling. A writer would pen a document on one side, and the machine would replicate the hand movements on the other.

In 1810, Peale decided to retire to a farm, and by retire he meant totally re-do. He added a studio, redid the kitchen, planted crops, and repaired the farm tools. Peale was too fond of his livestock to slaughter them. He needed money, so his neighbor suggested currants for wine, which he planted reluctantly because he himself was not a drinker. The wine became the most profitable project at the farm and was highly praised. During this time, Peale and Thomas Jefferson kept up a steady exchange of letters discussing new agricultural methods and equipment. At Monticello, Jefferson invented the moldboard plow and Peale put it into service at Belfield.

While Peale enjoyed tinkering with the farm equipment, he didn’t actually like the farming. In fact, farming may be the only thing at which Peale never truly excelled. Not to worry, however. His son Rubens loved botany, so he applied his artistic eye to this arena and created a lavish garden. The beauty of the gardens attracted flocks of people, so many in fact that the family had to close the gates to keep people from crushing the flowers. Rather than producing crops, Peale produced landscape paintings. In the end, Peale discovered that “retirement was hard on the wallet.” For a number of reasons, Belfield was sold, and Peale returned to Philly to focus on the future of his museum.

A few years later, the Marquis de Lafayette, a Revolutionary War hero, returned to Philadelphia for a visit. The red carpets were rolled out. There was to be a parade and a public gathering, but Peale was not asked to play any role in the visit. While this wounded his pride, he came to cheer in the crowd nonetheless. During the processional parade to the statehouse, however, Lafayette spied Peale in the crowd and immediately left the formal gathering and went to embrace his old friend. He insisted that Peale join him for several of the planned events as his special guest.

As he got older, his children believed that he had obtained a certain position in Philly society and they didn’t want him to jeopardize this. They became extremely nervous when he decided to write his autobiography in his mid-80’s. One of his daughters Sophy would read the installments nightly and would try to censor the more provocative parts. His kids were horrified when Peale put out an announcement in May of 1826 for his newest venture — Porcelain False Teeth, selling for $150 a set.

At the age of 85, Peale decided to find a fourth Mrs. Peale and marry again. A friend recommended an elderly lady who taught at a school for the deaf in New York. After a whirlwind two-week romance, Peale proposed to this lucky lady. The proposal also included an offer to teach her how to make false teeth. Shockingly, neither offer was accepted.

peale7

Peale returned to Philly from this adventure by boat, but it ran aground in stormy weather about a mile from the dock, so he had to walk with his luggage in the rain for quite some distance. When he arrived home, he was exhausted and had “strained his heart.” He became increasingly weak over the next few weeks and died in his bed Feb. 22, 1827.  He was buried in St. Peter’s Churchyard in Philadelphia, just blocks from his beloved museum.

The Houston Museum of Natural Science is opening a Peale-like Cabinet of Curiosities next Friday, May 6. Come visit for a taste of the wonder Americans might have felt wandering through Peale’s museum.

The (Real) First Thanksgiving: the Wampanoag Perspective

Most of us know the story. Seeking a place to establish a Puritan church, the Pilgrims arrive on the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock in 1620 and have a hard winter, so the Indians teach them how to grow their own food over the next year. The following harvest, they hold a huge feast to honor the Indians with turkey and dressing and pumpkin pie and celebrate their new-found friends and the peace between them, and we’ve kept that tradition ever since. But most of this isn’t true, and every tale has more than one perspective.

thanksgiving_feast

Our storybook version, featuring a giant turkey, grapes, and a majority of Pilgrims.

To the Wampanoag, the Native American people who aided the Pilgrims, things happened in a very different way. Their story begins like this. The Wampanoag had seen whites before, but when the English Pilgrims arrived with women and children, they didn’t see them as a threat. The winter was hard, that is true. From hiding, the Wampanoag watched 46 of the original 102 settlers perish from cold and hunger. March 16 the following year, a Monhegan from Maine named Samoset made contact with the Pilgrims, and the next day returned with Tisquantum, better known as Squanto, a Wampanoag who had learned English. Squanto befriended the English and taught them how to fish, how to plant corn, and how to hunt for nuts and berries. As a result of their friendship, the Pilgrims entered into a peace treaty with Massassoit, the Wampanoag chief, and heeded the advice of their new friends.

In September or October, their crops had a good yield, and they decided to hold a traditional English harvest feast. Historians draw the story of the first thanksgiving from two accounts, one of which was written by Pilgrim Edward Winslow. His account mentions the Pilgrims “sent four men on fowling,” meaning bird hunting, and that “we exercised our arms,” meaning gun fire. These men did hunt for “turkey,” but the word referred to any kind of bird, not necessarily the centerpiece of the contemporary Thanksgiving table.

Ask-an-Expert-First-Thanksgiving-631.jpg__800x600_q85_crop

A more accurate representation, but still featuring a turkey at the center of the table and just six Wampanoag.

The Wampanoag weren’t invited to this feast originally, according to Tim Turner, Cherokee, manager of Plimoth Plantation’s Wampanoag Homesite and co-owner of Native Plymouth Tours.

“Most historians believe what happened was Massassoit got word there was a tremendous amount of gun fire coming from the Pilgrim village,” Turner said, “so he thought they were being attacked and he was going to bear aid.”

Massassoit came with 90 of his warriors, prepared to do battle. Since there was none, the Pilgrims invited their new friends to their feast. However, there wasn’t enough to feed everyone, so the warriors went out and brought back five deer, their contribution, according to Kathleen Wall, Colonial Foodways Culinarian at Plimouth Plantation.

The feast lasted three days and likely included pumpkin, fish, berries, watercress, lobster, dried fruit, clams and plums in addition to the poultry and venison. There was no flour, so likely no pies or pastries. We can and should imagine a warm, three-day feast between the Wampanoag and the Pilgrims, a picture of unlikely togetherness and a celebration that marks a large part of the American identity, but consider that there were 91 Indians and around 50 Pilgrims. Re-think that long table surrounded by settlers with a few Indians thrown in, and forget that it was annual tradition.

thanks4

This representation is the most accurate, featuring a majority of Wampanoag, no turkey, and a large gathering.

Thanksgiving had been proclaimed by governors and presidents in the 13 colonies at one time or another, but as the country grew, many U.S. citizens didn’t feel it was appropriate. It wasn’t until magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale campaigned for the national holiday in her writing, an effort bordering on obsession. For 40 years, Hale pushed for the establishment of a Thanksgiving Day, publishing editorials in Boston Ladies’ Magazine and Godey’s Lady’s Book. (Incidentally, she is also the author of the children’s song Mary Had a Little Lamb.)Finally, in 1863, President Abraham Lincoln proclaimed the last Thursday in November as a national day of thanksgiving, but it still wasn’t what we celebrate today.

Sarah_Hale_portrait

Sarah Josepha Hale

During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s presidency, the holiday was pushed forward a week to create a longer Christmas shopping season, but public uproar convinced him to move it back to its original date. In 1941, Congress named Thanksgiving Day a legal holiday, the fourth Thursday in November.

This Thanksgiving, and every Thanksgiving following it, give gratitude for this wonderful country we live in. Enjoy your family. Enjoy your friends. Enjoy the fruits of your labor and all the things and people you have in your life. Give thanks for whatever fortune has bestowed upon you this year. Give thanks to those who fought and died to build this nation. Give thanks for being American, a wonderful, unique identity. Love your neighbor. Offer second chances. Make a new friend. Try to understand someone better. Buy things. Watch football. Because that’s what this holiday is all about.

But most of all, remember the whole story.

For more about the lives of indigenous Americans, visit the John P. McGovern Hall of the Americas. From our table to yours, Happy Thanksgiving!

I Sold My Soul to Science

I have been associated with the Museum in some form or fashion for over 10 years. Not only do I work for the Museum, I live with and am married to the Museum as well.  During this time I generally get asked three questions.  The first question is always, “What is it like to be married to / live with David?” My husband David Temple is the Associate Curator of Paleontology.  If you don’t like rocks and fossils, he will be around to convert you shortly.

People assume that we have some crazy life, but mostly we are just really busy. We truly enjoy being at our house (both at the same time, which makes it more difficult). I like to think that our house is styled after the Victorian period.  Dave likes to think of it as Neo Adams.

We get the weirdest questions about our house. As if we wouldn’t have all the standards that other houses have. So to prove that this is a fact, I have some pictures. (The house is true. Only the names have been changed to protect the innocent.)

We will begin with the kitchen. To prove that we are normal, here is our fridge. Like everyone else, we tack important bits of info to the fridge so they don’t get lost.


Like everyone else, we have scorpion and cobra whiskey on the fridge stored neatly under a Thai head dress. We have the odd assortment of frozen foods, like butterfly wings. And dead animals.

We like coffee in the morning. And we keep our pets next to the coffee maker on the counter.

As for the Dermestid Beetles.  They are actually my pet project.

We are trying to make skeleton mounts for the Education Collections and  I thought that the beetles might help with one or two dried frogs we had managed to acquire. This is about a month into the process.  The frog in this case had been mummified for about a year before giving him to the beetles.  A smaller, fresher frog, only took about two weeks.

I love baking cupcakes. Believe me, there was talk of an intervention. Dave loves to cook.  The kitchen is the central area in our house, as it is for most people.  We often have a variety of projects beside baking or cooking though.

In our kitchen, we have a hutch where we keep cook books. Cook books are safe and normal, I am sure you would agree. Dave collects cookbooks of various cultures and time periods and cuisines.

We have a room in the house that started off as the study/office, but it wasn’t widely used as most of the activities in this room ended up in the kitchen anyway. SO, I claimed it as my sewing room. Quilting often keeps me from killing my family. It is a great creative outlet and I am surrounded by inspiration.

 

Our back yard is often neglected, but we do seem to have an abundance of Aloe Vera for some reason.  Occasionally we water them and call it gardening. Directly next to the Aloe is my bucket o’ bones.  If you have read my previous posts on the Museum’s blog, you will be happy to note that the bones have made it inside and are being sorted. Plus, there is the bullfrog rescue operation Dave has started.

The second question I am always asked is, “What is it like to work at the Museum?”

The Museum is a cruel mistress.  You work long hours on weird projects, often on the weekends and you love every minute of it. The Museum is home.  Your house is where you keep your stuff when not at home. Here are a few shots of my office so you can envision the crazy. Note the Tapir skeleton in the background. 

The third question I am asked is, “You must learn a lot working at a Museum, right?”  You would think so, but yet I seem to be filled with only useless information.  I think that I might have a shot on Jeopardy. So, what have I learned working here?

 I know that the Rock Hyrax’s closest relative is the elephant.

 That Thomas Jefferson fully believed that Lewis and Clark would find a live mammoth when they mapped the west.

 

That the cone snail is one of the most deadly animals in the world, but is also used for pain medication. 

That it is better to have a hippo head than no hippo at all.

 

That the First Lady can’t walk under swordfish

 That the admin elevator is the exact right size for a tapir

 

That the giant squid has the largest eyeball of any animal

 And that it isn’t unusual to find your place of work altered on a daily basis.

 

But most importantly I have learned that without the support of the Museum volunteers, our patrons and the Houston community, the Museum could not provide the quality exhibits and programming that we do!