August 10, 2011

At the Shelburne Museum: Daily Life

The Shelburne Museum is one of the most unique museum experiences you can have. On 45 acres in Vermont's Champlain Valley is a collection of 18th and 19th century New England structures (including a paddle wheeled steamer) filled with art and artifacts of the period, including carriages and sleighs, folk art, decorative arts, tools and machinery. The museum was established in 1947 by Electra Havemeyer Webb (1888-1960); her parents were collectors of European and Asian art, but she became a voracious collector of Americana. I went to visit the museum yesterday and had an absolutely marvelous time wandering through the collections; my only regret being the dim light which made it difficult to photograph a lot of objects and spaces I loved. But I did come home with many images, which I'll share with you in several posts in coming days.

I thought I'd begin my tour with some of the historic houses that were moved to the Shelburne Museum, such as this "Settler's House", which is from Charlotte, Vermont and was built around 1800. The photo above shows the simple log and chinking construction with wooden shingles. I think of it as the kind of shelter a family would put up quickly when they were clearing their land, before they had time or resources to build a "real" house.

As you can see from these photographs of this settler's house, the interior was also very simple, with only bare necessities for living their lives. It would not have been very comfortable in the long Vermont winters.

There was another small cabin, minimally furnished, that was set up to show the residence of a jailor (notice the hanging handcuffs, and see the last image which is the jail). I love the quiet simplicity of table and chairs, with hanging shelf displaying cups and tinware dishes. Along one wall was a pallet, a thin hard bed; on the other wall was a small stove. A tableau like this is so touching.

Two of the most beautiful houses that were moved to the Shelburne are the Stencil House and the Prentis house. The Stencil House, a classic cape style from 1804, was from Sherburne, NY. Well preserved stencils had been discovered on its walls, so Mrs. Webb saved it from demolition and moved it to the museum in 1954. The salt box style Prentis house was built in Hadley, MA in 1773 and moved to the museum in 1955.

This is the front door of the Stencil House with divided lights over the door made up of blown colored glass.

The hearth of Prentis House has been reconstructed and furnished to appear as it might have in the 18th-19th century. Since my own house is quite old and used to have a massive central chimney, I like to imagine how the kitchen would have looked with its original fireplace; on a somewhat smaller scale, it might have been very much like this.

Alongside the kitchen was a pantry room, with shelves holding vessels and bowls that are from the period; the shapes are beautiful, designed for a purpose. Prentis House was named for Katherine Prentis Murphy, who donated most of the furnishings for the house. She had been known as a designer of period rooms for various museums. I must remember that these interiors have been created; they are an interpretation of what a house of this period looked like.

The wall stencils of Stencil House are very well preserved because they were painted on wood panels rather than plaster (around 1830) and because they had been hidden under many layers of wallpaper. The stenciling is unusual in that it is not confined to a border along the ceiling, but covers the walls.

Part of everyday life would have been going to the general store, so the museum has a building full of the goods a 19th century shopper might have seen. The top part of the image above shows some of the candy on display; the bottom section is from the apothecary, where patent medicines––"Pettit's Blood Purifier", "Hanford's Balsam of Myrhh"––would have been sold, along with the herbs shown above.

There were many wonderfully shaped door latches and hinges on buildings at the museum.

Lastly, here is a jail building, which came from Castleton, Vermont and was built in 1890. Though a jail can't quite be considered part of daily life, I wanted to include it because of its slate construction. That part of Vermont has several slate quarries, so its use would be natural there. I think the long, narrow stones of subtle grays make a beautifully textured and rhythmic surface. The jail adds another aspect to the story being told at the Shelburne Museum.


  1. enjoyed the tour, Altoon. though I must say I'm glad to be here not there in time & place.

  2. Thanks, rappel and Darsi. I do find the things on display very beautiful, but like you rappel, I'd rather be living now, with our modern conveniences.

  3. A gift of a post. Great eye for detail, especially the door latch. Unfortunately, I believe jail can be part of daily life today. Particularly when you factor in our prison economy.
    In Stockholm, they have a great outdoor park museum like this on a larger scale featuring people dressed in historic garb to match period: Skansen.

  4. Thanks Julie. Many years ago I went to a similar museum in Norway, where they also had the Viking ships. But I don't think they had the large collections of objects that the Shelburne has, some of which I'll be showing in other posts.

  5. Enjoyed my visit to Shelburne Museum through your eyes; haven't been there for years, but I remember taking some similar photos especially of the stencil house...a beauty. You certainly do have an eye for detail!