Preserving Gardens at Historic Sites – By Doug Day

Here at Villa Finale: Museum & Gardens, we take great delight in our gardens. We want people to spend time wandering through our site admiring the beauty around the grounds. Many historical institutions have dazzling landscapes filled with various plants that have been carefully preserved for years! Conservation management must be done throughout the year to make sure the landscape remains visually stunning to visitors. Do you ever wonder how the gardens of a historic site are maintained?

Horticultural Best Practices

Horticultural practices can be applied to the care of historic gardens and landscapes. Many historical sites, as well as botanical gardens and arboretums, may utilize horticultural practices to conserve the vegetation around the site.

Villa Finale’s side garden (from the Villa Finale Collection).

Horticulture is the use of plants for food, comfort, and beautification. It can be described as the science and the art of producing fruits, vegetables, herbs, and ornamental plants. Two branches within horticulture can be best applied to development and care of historic landscapes and gardens. Ornamental horticulture involves growing plants for the purpose of beautification for indoor or outdoor areas. It focuses on the process of growing and maintaining various flowering plants, shrubs, and trees. Landscape horticulture is the beautification of a specific outdoor space. It includes planning designs for landscapes, installing the landscapes according to the designed plan, and the constant maintenance of those landscapes.

The Virginia Cooperative Extension provides some basic horticultural best practices which include: testing the soil to learn the pH and nutrients that are present, grouping plants with similar needs for easier maintenance, and making sure to fertilize based on the testing of the soil and at the appropriate time of year.

(To see full list of horticultural management practices visit,

Stewarding the Gardens At Villa Finale

Villa Finale’s side garden, ca. August 1969 (from the Villa Finale Collection).

When Walter Mathis bought Villa Finale in 1967, he not only restored the house but also developed the magnificent gardens around the property as well! The Villa Finale Cultural Landscape Report mentioned the garden design contained a blend of Italian, French, and 19th Century American influence. The gardens became highly recognized and served as a backdrop for many advertisements and events.

Building and Grounds Manager Orlando Cortinas oversees the continuation of Walter’s design by making sure the gardens around the site remain aesthetically pleasing year-round. He explains his own basic process for preserving the grounds:

“I only use organic fertilizers for the grounds, we top dress the lawn with organic compost annually and also feed our plants with composted mulch annually, also I supplement throughout the year with organic liquid and granular fertilizer. So no synthetic fertilizers used here”

Orlando Cortinas working in Villa Finale’s front yard (from the Villa Finale Collection).

His tasks include rotation of the plants in the flower pots throughout the year, quarterly irrigation inspection, tree pruning and fertilization, weekly lawn mowing, and the routine watering of all the plants on the site.

Come by and visit our gardens for yourself!

Also be sure to check out these beautiful historic gardens featured on the National Trust website!

Olana State Historic Site (Hudson, NY):

Elisabet Ney Museum (Austin, TX):

Filoli (Woodside, CA)(**National Trust Site**):

International Peace Garden:

Coronation! (And not the one by the Order of the Alamo) – by Sara Taylor

Coronations for us here in the USA probably seem a little alien. After all we don’t have them here. The closest thing we get is the swearing in ceremony for a US president and it’s not quite an equal comparison!

Coronations are the formal investiture of a monarch in their regal powers and for the British monarchy the coronation ceremony itself has remained little changed since 1066. Unsurprisingly, for almost as long as there’s been a coronation ceremony, there have been royal commemoratives!

Royal Commemoratives are items that celebrate events and milestones of the Royal family, from births, marriages, deaths, and coronations, to victories in battle and jubilees, these souvenirs have been around for centuries. Ever since then commemoratives have made appearances at royal events in Britain as well as on the European continent.

So, in honor of the coronation, here are some royal commemoratives in the collection at Villa Finale!

The King That Never Got His Crown

Edward VIII was king for less than a year and never had a coronation, but that doesn’t mean one wasn’t planned!

Edward VIII (from Wikipedia).

Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, was born on June 23rd 1894 and was the eldest son of the Duke and Duchess of York, the future George V and Queen Mary. Known to his family as David, he was named the Prince of Wales in 1910 and served in World War I as part of the Grenadier Guards, though his rank and his father’s ministers prevented him from seeing action. After the War he traveled through the Empire on a series of goodwill tours which made him popular, but his continued affairs with married women and refusal to settle down frustrated his father.

When his father died on January 20th 1936, Edward ascended the throne with his coronation scheduled for May the following year. Items and coins began to be produced for the occasion, such as this mug, to be ready in time for the festivities.

From the Villa Finale Collection.

This mug in our collection was produced by the E. Hughes & Co. at the Opal China Works in Fenton Staffordshire in England. Fenton, Stoke-on-Trent, Hanley, Burslem, Tunstall, and Longton were collectively known as “The Potteries” was the home of England’s pottery industry including Wedgwood, which still operates in the area and can also be seen in the collection at Villa Finale.

From the Villa Finale Collection.

Edward broke with tradition and chose to be displayed on his coinage facing to the left rather than the right and we can see it in the mug as well! Supposedly he liked how he looked better on that side. On the back of the mug is his Royal Cipher, which is a monogram of the monarch’s initials. The ‘R’ stands for ‘Rex’ the Latin word for king. Around the rim is the day of the coronation. May 1937.

It was never meant to be though. In December 1936, facing a crisis in the government, Edward abdicated the throne to his younger brother in order to marry American divorcée Wallis Simpson.

As a result, not many royal commemoratives were made and are highly sought after!

The coronation went ahead as planned but with George VI instead of Edward VIII being crowned.

Well, You Can’t Plan for That

Edward VII was Edward VIII’s grandfather and he came to the throne in 1901, after the long reign of his mother, Queen Victoria. At the time of his mother’s death he had been heir apparent for six decades – a record that was only broken recently by Charles who was heir apparent for 70 years.

Edward’s coronation was scheduled for June of the following year to allow for mourning and preparation for the occasion. While Victoria, especially after the death of her husband Prince Albert, loathed the pomp and ceremony usually associated with monarchy, and dispensed with it when possible, Edward loved it. He threw himself into his new role though his first few months on the throne were plagued by illness.

It came to a head in June, as just two days before the coronation he was diagnosed with appendicitis and received an emergency operation. Two weeks later the king was declared out of danger and the coronation was pushed to August 9th to give the king a chance to recover. As a result, many of the visiting foreign dignitaries had left London, but this in-turn turned the event into more of a domestic celebration and the king arranged for ‘Coronation dinners to the poor of London’ to be served to 500,000 people across the city.

As a result of the postponement, many of the royal commemoratives made for the event have the original June date on them, such as our commemorative mug at Villa Finale. This was made by Aynsley China Ltd. which was founded in 1775 and was known for its bone china. It was a favorite of the British Royal family for porcelain.

The mug and saucer has the Union Jack and the Royal Standard with the heraldic symbols for England (three Gold lions on red), Scotland (a Red Lion on Gold), and Ireland (the Harp on Blue).

One picture is the coronation chair also called St. Edward’s Chair, which was commissioned for Edward I in 1296, and the Stone of Scone or Stone of Destiny, which Edward I stole from Scotland. The other chair is the throne used by the King during the Opening of Parliament in the House of Lords. 

From the Villa Finale Collection.

While it didn’t go as originally planned the coronation and the celebrations were considered a success!

Well, That Could Have Gone Better!

Victoria, Edward VII’s mother herself, did not have a very smooth coronation. In fact, royal scholars call hers the last of the “botched coronations.” Like mother like son!

Her coronation took place on June 28th 1838 in Westminster Abbey in London. The new railroads in Britain brought an estimated 400,000 people to watch and join the festivities. The weather was perfect, but the coronation wasn’t.

The ceremonies were not rehearsed beforehand and many of those who were take part in were confused as to what their parts were. One minister commented that “no one knew where to go!”

Queen Victoria’s coronation (from Wiki Commons).

During the ceremony the coronation ring, representing her marriage to the kingdom, was forced on to the wrong finger and it took her some time to remove it and place it on the right one. At one point a bishop mistakenly told Queen Victoria that the ceremony was over and she had to be brought back to finish the service. Lord Rolle, an elderly peer, fell down the steps while paying homage to the young queen. When he tried to climb the steps again, the queen stepped down so he wouldn’t attempt it again. The whole event was five hours long but the Victoria wrote in her diary that it was the “proudest moment in her life.”

After the coronation, there was a procession back to Buckingham palace. In the collection at Villa Finale we have a tableau of the Coronation Procession.

From the Villa Finale Collection.

This book was published in August of 1838, almost two months after the coronation, by Messrs. Fores of  Piccadilly Road in London. Our tableau is almost sixty feet long and is wonderfully colored with lots of detail. Many of the soldiers even have different facial hair!

Helpfully this book labels all the members of the procession in case you didn’t know or recognize who they were. Some were members of the British peerage, nobles, members of the government, foreign embassies, and members of the royal family such as Victoria’s uncles.

The grumpy man in the French carriage is probably Prince Louis of Orleans.

The different parts of the military are shown in full dress and again are helpfully labeled so the viewer knew who was who and what their part in the coronation was.

And finally, we get Victoria with her ladies in the Gold State Coach which was commissioned by George III to showcase Britain’s control over the seas (Britannia rules the waves and all).

Queen Victoria ruled until her death in 1901 and saw a massive change over her life in terms of science, industry, and politics.

From the Villa Finale Collection.

With the coronation around the corner, Royal commemoratives are already on sale. Will you be grabbing any?

Thomas Alexandre Dumas: The First Black French General – by Doug Daye

Did you know that the famous books, The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers were based on a Black man? Writer Alexandre Dumas’ novels were inspired by the life of his father Thomas-Alexandre Dumas who was the highest-ranking Black leader in the French military and served under Napoleon Bonaparte.

Villa Finale’s copy of The Count of Monte Cristo in the museum’s library.

Dumas was born on March 25, 1762 in Saint Dominique which is now Haiti. His father was a white French nobleman named Marquis Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie and his mother, Marie Cassette Dumas, was his African slave. In his youth he studied at the Academy of Nicolas Texier de La Boëssière, where he received a noble gentleman’s education. He learned swordsmanship under Chevalier de Saint-George, who was an accomplished violinist, also of mixed race. (***Be sure to watch the film “Chevalier”!!!  Watch the trailer here: ***)  

“Portrait of a Hunter in a Landscape, attributed to Louis Gauffier (1762-1801), is said to be a portrait of General Dumas.” From Harvard Magazine

Dumas decided to join the French Army in 1786. Gentlemen who came from a noble family background, like he did, could enlist as an officer. However, due to his mixed race, he had to enlist as a private. Despite this, Dumas rose quickly in the ranks due to his admirable display of courage and strength. By 1792, he became corporal and was recognized for being a fierce leader during the battle between Austria and Prussia. During the French Revolution, he became a member of the all Black French unit La Légion Américaine or the Black Legion. After this, he was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel of the Black Legion. The legion was so successful under his leadership that Dumas was promoted to General of La Légion Américaine in 1793, making him the first Black person to become general in the French Army!

Bonaparte at the siege of Toulon, 1793 (from Wikipedia).

In 1794, Dumas began to have health complications and had to take leave to recover which lasted 2 years. After his hiatus, he returned to battle in the Alps in 1796 but was demoted in rank and not given command of the unit. Being upset about this, he requested transfer and was sent to fight in Italy under the command of Napoleon Bonaparte. While Dumas was greatly admired and a victorious general under Napoleon, the relationship between the two was turbulent. Dumas did not agree with Napoleon’s decisions as a leader. Napoleon even became envious of Dumas, during his campaign in Egypt, when the Egyptians mistook Dumas as commander because of his impressive physique and height. After a dispute, Dumas requested to return to France. He was shipwrecked and taken prisoner along with the rest of the ship’s passengers in the Italian city of Taranto for two years.

Thomas-Alexandre Dumas portrait by Guillaume Guillon-Lethière ca. 1797 (from Wikipedia)

During his time in captivity, Dumas was malnourished and kept from all communication. By the time he was released in 1801, he was in poor health. He was denied the full pension usually given to French military officers to support their families. Because of this, he struggled to support his family when he returned to France. He wrote several letters to Napoleon, who ignored them all. Dumas died of stomach cancer at the age of 43 in 1806, leaving his wife and son Alexandre deep in poverty as a result of Napoleon’s resentment. (Napoleon also supposedly died of stomach cancer later in 1821….hmm.)

Monument to Dumas that was destroyed by the Nazis in he 1940s (from

It is easy to see why Alexandre Dumas was inspired by his father to write these famous novels. For years, the story of Thomas Alexandre Dumas had been obscured from history. In 1913, a monument was inaugurated in honor of Dumas in Place Malesherbes. However, the monument was torn down in World War II by the German military for being “offensive.” In 2009, a new monument dedicated to Dumas was built to replace the one the Germans destroyed. In 2002, he was entombed in the Panthéon mausoleum along with other notable French individuals.

Author Alexander Dumas (Getty Images).

Find out more about Thomas Alexandre Dumas here:

The Spiritualist Versus the Illusionist: The Battle Between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini – Part Two

Cecelia Weisz with Bess and her son, Harry (from Wild About Harry).

What happened after that 1922 séance with Lady Doyle? Houdini initially kept his opinions to himself – probably not wanting to embarrass his friends – while the Doyles publicly claimed they had successfully communicated with the magician’s mother. It wasn’t until a little while later that Houdini publicly went on record to say he had never seen anything from any medium to convince him the dead could communicate with the living. This not only hurt Lady Doyle’s feelings, it greatly angered Sir Arthur.

From the Library of Congress.

Further fanning the flames, that same year Scientific American magazine offered $5,000 to anyone who could scientifically prove the existence of ghosts. Being on the magazine’s panel of judges, Houdini passionately set out to debunk mediums by attending seances in disguise and lecturing on the topic, while exposing props used by mediums during their sessions. In 1926, he even testified before Congress to get a bill passed that would regulate mediums and fortune tellers.

One of the most famous mediums of the time, Mina “Margery” Crandon during a séance. Note the “spirit hand” appearing from her abdomen area. (From Wikimedia Commons)

To be clear, mediums and clairvoyants were making a killing during the 1920s off desperate people – rich and poor – who were anxious to communicate with their dearly departed, and they didn’t take kindly to Houdini raining on their money parade. In fact, in 1924 Boston medium Mina “Margery” Crandon, who was one of those exposed by Houdini, put a “curse” on him claiming he would be dead within the year as punishment for questioning the validity of her powers. Said Houdini, “The preposterous and malignant curse which has been put on me in Boston is not going to kill me. But here is always the chance that a coincidence will seem to prove the working of the curse.” [“‘Evil Spirits’ Put Curse Upon Harry Houdini.” Pittsburgh Telegraph, 22 December 1924]

Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead (on the right) (from

Houdini’s words couldn’t have been more prophetic. On October 11, 1926 Houdini broke his ankle during a show. Ever the showman, he refused to get medical attention choosing instead to continue his travels to Montreal where he was scheduled to speak on the fakery of mediums. While in Montreal Jocelyn Gordon Whitehead, a student at McGill University, asked Houdini if he could punch him, as the illusionist was famous for withstanding a punch to the gut. Of course, this required physical preparation by Houdini – tensing his abdomen muscles, etc. – but without warning, Whitehead punched Houdini (reportedly more than once) which sent the magician writhing to the floor in pain. Again, rather than seek medical attention, Houdini soldiered on with his shows until his wife, Bess convinced him to go to the hospital once her husband developed a 104 degree fever. Doctors discovered his appendix had ruptured and immediately had it surgically removed, but by then it was too late. The seemingly “undefeatable” Harry Houdini died of sepsis on Halloween, 1926.

The Houdini / Weiss grave at Machpelah Cemetery, New York, New York (from Gardens of

Having an appendix ruptured due to body blows is extremely rare. Many believed Houdini may have already been suffering from appendicitis which was made worse by Whitehead’s punches. Others believed he was poisoned by his many enemies while in the hospital. What was the true reason? We’ll never know for sure since an autopsy was never performed. Interestingly enough, the Houdinis continued their anti-medium crusade even after Harry’s death as the couple had agreed that, should one of them die before the other, the deceased one would communicate with the living partner using a special, predetermined code. After ten years of seances to communicate with her husband, Bess Houdini finally gave up: no medium could ever crack the couple’s code.

“The Wanderings of a Spiritualist” (1921) by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (from

And what about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? What did he have to say after his once good friend’s death? Both he and Lady Doyle claimed that Houdini’s mother had predicted her son would die young when she supposedly made contact during that séance in 1922, but the Doyles had chosen not pass this message along to the escape artist. There is no concrete evidence of such a message having been recorded. Conan Doyle did say, “We were great friends. He told me much in confidence, but never secrets regarding his tricks. How he did them I do not know. We agreed upon everything excepting spiritualism.” [The Associated Press, “Conan Doyle Mourns Houdini.” The Salt Lake Tribune, 2 November 1926, p.1]


“Houdini Ruins” off Laurel Canyon in Los Angeles, ca. 1990s. These are no longer visible from the street. (From

Purportedly, people still hold seances on Halloween night near where Harry Houdini was living in Los Angeles. The property is referred to as “Houdini’s Estate” even though the property had been owned by one of his friends, Ralf Walker not Houdini. Located on Laurel Canyon Boulevard, the original mansion and guest house, where the Houdinis likely stayed, burned down in 1959 leaving what eventually became overgrown ruins. Attracted by reported sightings of Houdini’s ghost, I made a visit to the site in 1990 with a group of friends. We didn’t see Houdini’s ghost, but we did find burned out candles and the like, evidence that the magician’s admirers were still trying to “make contact.” The property was sold in 1997 and the new owner cleaned up all the debris and began a restoration. The property has been sold a few more times since then and can now be rented for film shoots and private events: The Houdini Estate.

Lady Jean Doyle and one of Sir Arthur’s sons sit for a spirit photograph one year after Doyle’s death. (Harry Ransom Center, University of Austin at Texas)

Now you may be thinking, if Houdini, the unbeliever didn’t make contact, what about Sir Arthur Conan Doyle? Did he ever manifest himself during a séance? Mediums claimed Doyle made contact as early as one week after his death in 1930. Four years later in a séance attended by nearly 600 people in London, Doyle reportedly made contact again, and this time is was supposedly recorded on 26 acetate discs. “Doyle’s spirit” was recorded saying, “Take care of my boys and my good wife, Jean.” You can listen to “Doyle’s spirit” here:

[Are you curious to attend a séance? Villa Finale will be hosting “Springing Into Spiritualism,” on March 31, 2023 to mark the 175th anniversary of the first ever séance led by our friends at The Austin Séance (ticket information here:

If we should happen to sell out by the time this post is published, we will be hosting another séance in the fall. Sign up for our email list to stay informed about all our events and programs!]


Harry Houdini’s Spiritual Feud with Arthur Conan Doyle

When Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (Maybe) Spoke with the Dead

Scientific American vs. the Supernatural

Arthur Conan

Arthur Conan

Wild About Harry Houdini

The Spiritualist Versus the Illusionist: The Battle Between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Harry Houdini – Part One

“Spirit is independent of matter”: this is what spiritualists from the late 19th century through the early 20th century tried to prove. In other words, our spirits continue to live even after our physical bodies die, and that it is possible for the souls of the dead to communicate with the living when provided the proper channels.

A Victorian-era séance (from

Many today do believe in life after death. Recently, I was back home (in the Los Angeles area) and decided to pay a visit to a former schoolmate of mine who had died a few months before. I was provided with the exact plot on a cemetery map from the office but, without any identifying number markers, finding the grave was proving impossible on the hilly memorial park. Just as I was about to give up and place the flowers I had purchased on a random lonely grave, I felt a tug on my denim pants – all of a sudden I had a sudden urge to go down the hill and to my left, in the direction I felt said “tug.” One minute later, I found my friend’s gave. Coincidence? I’ll let readers decide as I can be both skeptic and believer.

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle: doctor, author, spiritualist (from Flickr).

One skeptic turned believer was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the author and creator of the great fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes. Doyle created Holmes in 1887 when he was a young doctor. As a man of science, Doyle created the character with the methodology that “science can take the place of chance” to solve cases. Indeed, Sherlock Holmes used reason to crack even the toughest mysteries. However, by the time “A Study in Scarlet” the first Holmes book was released, Doyle was already attending séances, studying poltergeists, and experimenting with auto writing, and more. By the mid-1890s he had gone from “professional skeptic” as he called himself, to a full-fledged member of the Society of Physical Research (an organization created to understand the psychic or paranormal).

The first book featuring Sherlock Holmes (1887) (from Wikipedia).

By this time, Doyle’s “reasonable” Sherlock Holmes was starting to put a bit of a cramp on the author’s new outlook. Doyle wrote to his mother, “I think of slaying Holmes … He takes my mind from better things.” Indeed, Doyle grew disappointed with the era’s well-known people of knowledge who refused to even study the survival of life after death. To grow as a person, Doyle believed, one had to remain open-minded to everything, including the unexplainable. “Death is not the end,” he proclaimed.

The Doyles sit for a “spirit photographer” (1920). (From the Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia)

Doyle felt spiritualism brought solace to people who lost loved ones, especially after the outbreak of World War I. In 1918, Doyle lost one of his sons, Arthur Kingsley, to the influenza pandemic while he was serving with the British Army. On September 7, 1919, Doyle claimed he had made contact with his dead son during a séance in England led by medium, Evan Powell. He was so thrilled he spent the last few years of his life touring the world to lecture on the reality of an afterlife. Doyle didn’t care that he was ridiculed for his beliefs which included ghosts and fairies.

Two giants meet: Harry Houdini and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (from themelbourneblogger.blogspot).

While on tour in 1920, Doyle met famous escape artist Harry Houdini, who was on his own tour at the time to prove all mediums were frauds. Houdini knew many tricks of the trade used by mediums as he and his wife, Bess had claimed to be clairvoyants themselves early on in their careers. Perhaps Houdini had some guilt over taking advantage of people’s emotions to make money when he was first starting out, so this may have compelled him to expose mediums in an effort to protect others from being bamboozled out of their money.

Harry Houdini: escape artist, showman, skeptic (1903). (From

Despite their differences about something both were passionate about, the two men formed an unlikely friendship. Perhaps it was because Doyle honestly believed Houdini had supernatural abilities despite the fact the illusionist tried to convince him otherwise. They each tried unsuccessfully to change the other’s mind: Doyle believed there was inexplicable evidence of life after death while Houdini believed it was all hogwash. To be fair, Houdini didn’t completely dismiss the notion of life after death, he just wanted concrete proof he couldn’t debunk.

Stop-motion animation pioneer, Willis O’Brien working with “scary dinosaurs” for the 1925 film The Lost World based on Doyle’s 1912 book of the same name (from

The unlikely friendship began to fall apart in 1922 when Houdini invited Doyle to speak at the annual meeting of the Society of American Magicians. To prove that just because something seems impossible doesn’t mean it can’t happen, Doyle screened a test clip of the yet to be completed “The Lost World” (1925) based on his 1912 book. The clip featured a pair of dinosaurs (stop-motion figures) duking it out on a cliff. Although the special effects seem crude by today’s standards, the clip awed the 1922 audience. Of course, having dabbled in photographic and film illusions himself, Houdini knew there was more to what the eye interpreted on the screen.

Self-proclaimed medium, Lady Jean Doyle (from Wikidata).

Later that year, it was Doyle’s turn to extend an invitation to Houdini. Lady Jean Doyle, Arthur Conan’s second wife, was a self-proclaimed medium who would be leading a séance where Houdini was the guest of honor. During the event, Lady Doyle made “contact” with Houdini’s mother, Cecelia Weisz, who had died nine years before. Communication with Cecelia was via auto writing – also known as psychography – which is a way mediums produced words or messages without consciously writing. The message was about fifteen pages long, opening with a cross drawn on the first page, and written all in English. Houdini, despite not saying a word, noticed two problems: his mother was Jewish and only spoke German and Yiddish, not English.

How did Harry Houdini respond to these obvious inconsistencies? Find out in part 2 coming soon!

[Are you curious to attend a séance? Villa Finale will be hosting “Springing Into Spiritualism,” on March 31, 2023 to mark the 175th anniversary of the first ever séance led by our friends at The Austin Séance (ticket information here:

If we should happen to sell out by the time this post is published, we will be hosting another séance in the fall. Sign up for our email list to stay informed about all our events and programs!]

Celebrating Black Inventors and Innovators: Part 7

Doug’s final post on Black inventors and innovators is here! We know you’ve enjoyed it as much as we have.

Doug Daye

Biscuit Cutter

From the Villa Finale Collection.

Alexander P. Ashborne was a well-known and respected caterer in Philadelphia when he came up with the idea to reinvent the way biscuits were made. While working at the 1863 Emancipation Celebration, he noticed the biscuits were hand patted and lacked definition. This led him to design a spring-loaded biscuit cutter that would allow biscuits to have more shape and form. His cutter included a board to make loading and unloading simpler. It also included metal plates with various shapes. The cook could press down on the plate to cut the dough into shapes. He received the patent for his design on November 20, 1876.

Fountain Pen and Hand Stamp

William Purvis was born into an influential family of abolitionists, educators, businessmen, and poets so his inspiration for innovation came as no coincidence. Though he had numerous other inventions, he was best known for the improvements he made to the fountain pen. His pen allowed for the elimination of ink bottles and instead used stored ink in a reservoir inside the pen. An elastic tube connected the ink reservoir and the tip of the pen. The suction and pressure in the tube regulated the flow of the ink which depended on the force and speed of the writer. The unused ink was then returned to the reservoir. He received the patent for his invention on January 7, 1890. Purvis’s fountain pen has contributed to businesses all over by making office work cleaner and more affordable.

His other inventions include a hand stamp that was able to replenish its own ink. This was the first invention he received a patent for on February 27, 1883.  

Home Security System

From the Villa Finale Collection.

In 1969, Marie Van Brittan Brown received a patent for the first home security system, along with her husband, Albert. Brown worked long hours as a nurse and had to return home at night. Her husband, a technician, also worked irregular hours which meant that she would be home alone many nights. Fearful of being vulnerable in a neighborhood with high crime, Brown decided to figure out a way to see who was at her door if she heard knocking. In 1966 she went to work designing a security system with her husband’s assistance. The system included four peep holes, a sliding camera, television monitors, and two-way microphones. This created a closed-circuit television system for surveillance called CCTV. Brown’s invention contributed to the design of modern home security systems.

I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about how Black inventors contributed to our society! Be sure to learn about more Black inventors and their inventions from the Black Inventions Museum:

Also, please come visit us at Villa Finale to see these objects for yourself!

Collecting History: For the Love of Chocolate

The man, the legend: Richard Cadbury (from Wikipedia)

‘Tis the season for love – and chocolate! How many of us haven’t received the delicious treats in the now traditional heart-shaped box for Valentine’s Day? We can thank chocolatier, Richard Cadbury, who would forever cement Valentine’s Day and chocolate together. After taking over the family business in 1861 with his brother John, Richard came up with the ingenious idea of selling his family’s treats in decorative boxes. In 1868, the Cadburys produced the first heart-shaped box as a container for their chocolates on Valentine’s Day. Riding the wave of Victorian romanticism, people of the time would keep the boxes to store their love letters, locks of hair from their beloved, and other mementos of the heart.

Montezuma II painting by Daniel del Valle, 1895. “Take me to my chocolate!”

Heart-shaped box aside, chocolate had been considered a type of aphrodisiac dating way back to ancient Mesoamerican cultures. The Aztecs and Mayans considered xocolatl – chocolate – a very special elixir that contained elements for energy boosts, medicinal properties, as well as a substance that increased the libido. Chocolate – then only consumed in liquid form – was enjoyed both hot and cold. Aztec emperor Montezuma II allegedly drank 50 cups or more of chocolate per day! That’s a whole lot of chocolate.

Marie-Antoinette enjoying “drinking chocolate” at Versailles (from

The Spanish introduced the drink as an expensive imported product to Europe’s elite. It was the Spanish who added cane sugar to the drink to make it less bitter. French King Louis XV was so fond of drinking chocolate he made his own to enjoy with his mistress, Madame de Pompadour, in his private rooms using a recipe he concocted himself. Years later in 1770, when Marie-Antoinette arrived at court in Versailles to marry the future King Louis XVI, she insisted on bringing along her personal “chocolatier” from Austria who was given the title “Chocolate Maker to the Queen.”

Fry’s was purchased by Cadbury in 1919 (from

The first edible chocolate bar wasn’t introduced until 1847 by British candy makers J.S. Fry & Sons. In the 1860s, the Cadbury company, who until then had been focused on tea and coffee, began using a new cocoa press developed in the Netherlands that made it possible to remove some of the cocoa butter – an edible but unsavory fat extracted from cocoa beans – during the chocolate-making process to create a creamier eating chocolate. But it was the Swiss in the 1870s who came up with a process to create the first milk chocolate bar.

Hershey and his factory in Pennsylvania. So delicious and successful, they named the town “Hershey” (from

Here in the United States, Milton Hershey developed the first assembly-line for the production of milk chocolate bars in 1900. By the 1920s, chocolate bars were all the rage. Some of the most popular were Baby Ruth, Oh Henry!, Charleston Chew, and – my personal favorite – Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups.

A “taste” of Villa Finale’s current mini-exhibition celebrating chocolate and chocolate molds (from the Villa Finale Collection).

At Villa Finale, we have an extensive collection of chocolate molds – first introduced in France in the 1830s – used by chocolate-makers and folks who wanted to have a crack at making treats at home. The molds evolved from simple trays with geometric designs – called “flat-backs” – to two-sided molds called “double-molds” shaped into fun shapes. These molds in our collection are normally difficult to see since they are kept further away from visitors in the Kitchen and Basement, which isn’t normally open to the public. However, if you visit us through the end of March, you can see some of these molds up close in a new mini-exhibition now on display in Villa Finale’s Dining Room!

Shoebox brand Valentine’s Day card (from Pinterest).

So this Valentine’s Day, if you receive a heart-shaped box of chocolates, remember the marketing genius of Richard Cadbury and all the different people throughout history who have made chocolate the delicious treat we know today … just don’t be like Montezuma II and eat 50 pounds of it!

If you’re interested to learn more about chocolate molds or beginning / adding to a collection, visit Dad’s Follies, the largest company for antique metal molds. Click here to view their website.

Happy Birthday, Joan of Arc, You Fashion Icon You!

On January 6th, Joan of Arc – arguably the most famous patron saint of France – would have celebrated her 611th birthday. Known for her visions that led her to request Charles VII let her “lead” French forces in order to stop the English and assure his coronation during the Hundred Years’ War (1337 – 1453), and for her famous death (she was burned at the stake for heresy in 1431 at the tender age of nineteen), Joan is also famous for her defiance of gender norms. She spoke her mind (pretty brave for a woman in the middle ages), wore what were traditionally men’s clothes, and cut her hair short in what may have been history’s most famous bobbed haircut.

While some people argue there is no evidence Joan of Arc truly sported this haircut, artists throughout the years have famously depicted her with the short hairdo. In 1911, one of Paris’ most famous hairstylists known as Monsieur Antoine or Antoine de Paris (born in Poland, his real name was Antoni Cierplikowski), gave 40-year old actress Ève Lavallière – who was going to play an 18-year old in a play – the shortened hairdo to make her look younger. Audiences were amazed! Had Antoine discovered the key to everlasting youth? Claiming Joan of Arc as his inspiration, the hairdo began to be called “à la Jeanne d’Arc.”

Monsieur Antoine: the first modern “celebrity” hairdresser (from

In 1915, famous dancer Irene Castle – half of the Vernon and Irene Castle duo – cut her hair short as a mere manner of convenience prior to an appendectomy; the hairstyle then began being called the “Castle Bob.” The bob didn’t truly take off until the 1920s, however. In May, 1920, the Saturday Evening Post published F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “Bernice Bobs Her Hair,” a short story about a shy girl who is tricked into getting her hair bobbed and is then quickly shunned by boys and society. (If you haven’t seen the 1976 TV movie by the same name starring Shelley Duvall as Bernice, you’re missing out!) 1920 was still a time when femininity was judged by a number of “criteria” including long hair.

Shelley Duvall in “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” (from Wikimedia Commons)

At first, hairstylists resisted requests for the haircut driving many women to barbershops where barbers were more than happy to comply. By 1925, hairdressers had given into the fashionable trend sought by women eager to break societal norms. This one, simple hairstyle drove up profits for the beauty industry! Soon, there were accessories to compliment the bob such as hairbands and the iconic cloche hat. Attitudes of women donning the do – that were just as controversial as the haircut itself – also pushed the limits: they drank, smoked, showed off their knees, and wore makeup … scandalous! Actress Mary Gordon was quoted in a 1927 issue of Pictorial Review as saying, “I consider getting rid of our long hair one of the many little shackles that women have cast aside in their passage to freedom. Whatever helps their emancipation, however small it may seem, is well worth while.” [Victoria Sherrow, Victoria. Encyclopedia of Hair: A Cultural History. Westport, CT, London: Greenwood Press, 2006.]

Woman in the 1920s making a bold statement in the barber’s chair. (From Pinterest)

The bobbed haircut – or some version of it – has transcended well beyond the 1920s into today. The right haircut can sometimes make a career. In 1988, a then “up and coming” model, Linda Evangelista, had her hair cut by stylist Julien d’Ys into what can be described as a “grown-out pixie.” The hairstylist admitted to cutting Evangelista’s hair on a “whim,” and wasn’t sure how he was going to cut it until he actually began snipping. Although nervous about her new look at first, Evangelista’s new look was a hit and, she admitted, her modeling rates “quadrupled.”

Linda Evangelista before and after the haircut that sparked her career. (From

Celebrities like Halle Berry, Emma Watson, and Jennifer Lawrence – just to name a few – have all made fashion statements by cutting their hair short. “When you have short hair, there’s just a feeling of here I am. What you see is what you get,” said Halle Berry in the February 11, 2015 issue of Glamour magazine. “And there’s a confidence that comes with wearing short hair and I like the way that makes me feel.” If Joan of Arc did indeed bob her own hair, she then most certainly felt that confidence described by Halle Berry – assertive enough to lead French forces to victory! Perhaps when you look and feel good, anything is possible. Thanks, Joan!

A well dressed woman, even though her purse is painfully empty, can conquer the world! — Louise Brooks

Silent film actress and 1920s fashion icon, Louise Brooks. (From Wikipedia)

To see more versions of the famous “bob” – like the “Moana” and the “Coconut” – click here.

Celebrating Black Inventors and Innovators: Part 6

Doug Daye’s second to last post covering Black inventors and innovators is here for your reading pleasure! (All featured images are from Villa Finale’s collection.)

Doug Daye


On November 15, 1898, Lyda Newman received the patent for the first hairbrush with synthetic bristles. Her design for an improved hairbrush was inspired by her own experience as a Black woman and a hairdresser. Prior to her invention, hairbrushes had been made of animal hair which were soft and not sufficient for treating the thickness of African American hair. Newman’s design included synthetic fibers which were more durable and made cleaning easier. The brush used evenly spaced rows of bristles to clear away debris into a compartment that could be opened with a button and cleaned out. Newman’s invention changed the hair care industry and paved the way for two other notable Black female inventors – Madam C.J. Walker and Marjorie Joyner – to revolutionize hair care.

Automatic Fishing Pole

George Cook received a patent for his improved Automatic Fishing Device on October 10, 1899. His device featured a trip lever that was triggered by tension. When fish would nibble at the bait, the rod would be set to tip up to hook the fish automatically. A spring-loaded carriage would be released that would immediately slide back on short rails in the frame of the device. It also included an alarm gong that would ring by releasing a spring-operated striker. Cook’s invention contributed to sport fishing and outdoor leisure.

Telephone System and Apparatus

Granville T. Woods made many contributions to the advancement of communications and railways. He was born to free African Americans and held various engineering and industrial jobs before starting his own company. His most notable invention was an apparatus that combined a telephone and telegraph which was called the “induction telegraph” or block system. Woods’s design allowed for railroad workers to communicate by voice to one another through telegraph wires. This made communication faster and prevented accidents. He received his patent on October 11, 1887. He was called “Black Edison” after defeating a lawsuit by Thomas Edison that challenged his patent and after declining Edison’s offer to become partner.

Look for the last and final part of Doug’s “Black Inventors and Innovators” series next month!

Victorians and Egyptomania: Enter King Tut, Stage Right – Part Six by Sara Taylor

Interpretive Guide, Sara Taylor


The discovery of King Tut’s tomb came at a time when the world was in desperate need of some good news. World War I had just ended as had a global pandemic. This boy-king whose glittering tomb had sat nearly untouched for thousands of years captured the imagination of the public. Journalists descended upon Carter and Carnarvon to see the priceless artifacts, as did royalty and celebrities of the day.  Advertisers saw the advantage of the public’s interest in Tut and started plastering Egypt on everything.

Even magic shows!


Egyptian revival style had remained a staple in the architecture of the day and was a major influence on the Art Deco style that we think of when we envision the early 20th century taste – bold lines, bright vivid colors, and repeating patterns incorporating stylized florals. We didn’t see this influence just in buildings, like the Empire State Building, but into clothes and jewelry as well. Cartier and Tiffany produced Egyptian inspired jewelry, some of which looked like it came right out of Tut’s tomb instead of being inspired by it! Egyptian inspired décor once again became all the rage!

Laurelton Hall (from Wikicommons)

The famous symbol of the 1920 and 1930s, the Flapper, drew inspiration for her iconic hairstyle from Egypt as well with her Cleopatra-like bob. Make-up was marketed with Egyptian inspired ads and logos.


The 1932 movie “The Mummy” starring the famous Boris Karloff was directly inspired by the discovery of Tut’s tomb and the “mummy’s curse” since one of the screenwriters had been a journalist covering its initial discovery! He even used the name of Tut’s wife Ankhesenamun as the love interest for the priest Imhotep. During the golden age of Hollywood, mummies and Egypt were a favorite subject, with dozens of films and shows made.

Modern Day

In 1932 Tut’s tomb was finally cleared of all its contents and all the objects were documented and sent to the Cairo Museum. Howard Carter continued to work in Luxor and as interest in Tut waned, he found work as a dealer for private collectors and museums. For his discovery he was awarded the Order of the Nile from King Fuad I of Egypt. He died in 1939 of Hodgkin’s disease.  

In 1976 interest in Tut was reignited when Tut’s Treasures traveled through the US on a seven-stop tour. It was the first blockbuster exhibit, and it is believed that over 8 million people saw the boy-king’s treasures, including his iconic death mask. Steve Martin, in 1978, first sang “King Tut” on Saturday Night Live, which went gold.

Tut’s treasures have since toured the world several times and currently reside in the new Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo, which is scheduled to open later this year. The boy-king himself has never left Egypt and besides some trips to be x-rayed by archaeologists and researchers has never left his tomb.

Tut and ancient Egypt continue their hold on the public imagination and in pop culture today. Villa Finale’s collection contains many Egypt-inspired collection pieces, can you spot some of them on your next visit?

As an extra bonus, hear how English researchers recreated the voice of a mummified priest using a 3-D printer to bring his vocal cords to life.