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200 Objects on Display Trace 300 Years of US History

Decorative arts and artifacts are currently providing a sweeping 300-year look at significant moments in American history at the Bard Graduate Center for Studies in the Decorative Arts, Design and Culture. The exhibition also tells the stories of individuals who helped found and build the United States.

Curators say the decorative objects, from teapots and clocks to textiles and ceramics to jewelry and furniture, tell us how early Americans lived, and also trace the evolution of the nation to the present day.

The show opens with an insignificant-appearing old teapot. Curator Nancy Carlisle calls the small teapot one of the exhibition's signature pieces.

"It is thought to have belonged to Crispus Attucks, who was the first victim of the Boston massacre,” she said. “He was an enslaved man of African and Indian descent, who first appears in the record as an escaped slave in 1750."

Attucks died in 1770, during a confrontation between local people and British troops that turned violent. Eventually, he became a symbol for abolitionists, those who opposed slavery. But another section of the exhibition reminds visitors, opposition to slavery was not universal in the northeastern states. A series of portraits depicts a family in the state of Maine that was torn apart by the Civil War.

"The two sons grew up to follow their father's trade and became lawyers,” she adds. “The oldest of them moved away, eventually to the South. In the South, he became more southern than the southerners, and completely convinced of the importance of the southern cause. He wrote back to his family about how outrageous it was that northerners were coming down to the South, and telling them how they should live."

The son who lived in the South died early in the Civil War, while his brother in the North ended the conflict as a brigadier general.

The divisions created in families on opposite sides of the civil war have provided ample drama for literature and films. But the story of early Americans who did not support the American Revolution is sometimes overlooked. In the Bard exhibit, a clock represents the so-called "loyalists."

"You see the quote on the wall which reads, ‘I heard the clock every hour last night.’ The date is 1777. The person who said it is Jonathan Sayward, who you see in the portrait next to the clock. Jonathan Sayward, in 1777, was essentially held under house arrest at his home in York, Maine," she notes.

Sayward was an honored member of his community because of his earlier role in a battle against French forces in nearby Canada. But he remained loyal to the British when the American colonies fought to become independent, and was soon imprisoned in his home.

A series of pottery vases is displayed in a more modern section of the exhibition. Curator Nancy Carlisle says the pottery tells the story of an experiment in social engineering by women for women.

"The Saturday Evening Girls Club was a club of immigrants from Boston's North End, both Italian and Jewish first generation immigrants, who decided to meet together for a reading group. This was a really remarkable act for a first generation group of girls to do,” she says. “This was a time when all of a family's efforts had to go to making money. So, to set themselves off, to do something that was purely for their own education and pleasure was a really revolutionary act."

In the 1890s, a local woman philanthropist heard about the group, and paid to have the women trained in a trade, designing and producing pottery.

"They gave them a clean work space, which was hard for immigrants to come by, and also fair wages,” she adds. “They were given time off, vacation time. The immigrant girls who had been the potters and decorators had amazing success. This group graduated from high school at a rate of 75 percent, and 50 percent of them went on to college."

Their enterprise, known as Paul Revere Pottery, stayed in business until the 1940s.

The 200 objects on display in the Bard exhibition belong to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. The Society keeps its collection of more than 100,000 artifacts in 35 historic house museums throughout the New England region. The exhibition will travel nationally after ending at the Bard Graduate Center in June.