“Collecting History”: General Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren Miniature Wedding Album

This item was meant to be a souvenir commemorating the wedding of Charles Sherwood Stratton (stage name, General Tom Thumb) to Lavinia Warren in February of 1863. Both were performers for P.T. Barnum. Although the event took place during the height of the American Civil War, the wedding pushed the raging war off the front page. Thousands attended the wedding reception in New York – Barnum sold tickets to the event at $75.00 per person – and the newlyweds were even received at the White House by President Abraham Lincoln.

Barnum with his star, “General Tom Thumb” (Pinterest)

Charles, aka “Tom” was born in Connecticut in 1838. By all accounts he was a large baby but stopped growing at about five months and didn’t grow any taller than about 3’. He was still four years old when P.T. Barnum – a distant relative of Stratton – began “exhibiting” him at his American Museum in New York. Barnum taught him to sing, dance, and do impressions of famous people like Napoleon. Because Charles turned out to be a natural performer, he became all the rage with audiences in New York. Tom Thumb became a millionaire under Barnum.

Lavinia Warren (Wikipedia)

Lavinia was born in Massachusetts in 1842 to a well-respected New England family. Both she and her sister Minnie had dwarfism, a condition caused by pituitary disorder, one of the possible occurrences of family intermarriage. When Lavinia was 16, she began her career as a teacher but was lured into show business, especially after following the success of “General Tom Thumb”; first as a dancer onboard a Mississippi showboat, and later managed by Barnum as one of his performers. Reportedly, she fell for Charles Stratton – “Tom” – during their first meeting.

Wedding party, 1863. Lavinia’s sister, Minnie is at the far right and “Commodore Nutt,” who had pursued Lavinia, is at the far left. http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.52223

Photographer Mathew Brady took the image of the couple that would be turned into a bestselling carte-de-visite – or calling card – that was licensed to other photographers and lithographers. This little locket was shaped to look like a suitcase with the words “Somebody’s Luggage” which is a reference to an 1862 short story by Charles Dickens. The 12 images inside were taken by Brady. Note: the baby in the photographs was not theirs. It was meant to show Lavinia had good domestic skills and therefore would be a great wife to “Tom.” Charles died in 1883 (he was 45). Lavinia remarried ten years later and died in 1919.

Photographer Mathew Brady (Britannica.com)

You can see the video that accompanies this blog post here:

Introducing “Collecting History”: Stories Inspired by Villa Finale’s Most Weird & Wonderful Curiosities

When we buy an item from an antique store, we are getting more than whatever object is on our receipts. We are acquiring stories, some of which we not even be aware of.

Paperweight housed in Villa Finale’s Green Sitting Room.

Take this cranberry glass paperweight purchased at the Texas State Fair in 1906. How far did it originally travel? What child did “Mama” gift this to? If it could talk, what sort of wonderful stories could this object tell us?

The Post at Mittenwald, ca. 1900.

What about this charming little painting called ‘The Post in Mittenwald, Bavaria,” by German artist, Georg Hemmrich (1874 – 1939). This painting is nearly lost among the dozens of other Continental paintings hanging on the Walls of Villa Finale’s Pewter Room. Why did Hemmrich choose this subject for his painting? Did this place have a significant meaning to him? If we explore the artist’s other works, we find many of his other paintings capture many of the same type of scenes. Why?

Any object can lead us to ask many questions, and what we can discover if we take the time to dig deeper, is truly fascinating! Our new video and blog series, “Collecting History”: Stories Inspired by Villa Finale’s Most Weird & Wonderful Curiosities, will highlight objects in the collection that aren’t always highlighted during our regular tours, but have more stories to tell than the eye can behold. The series will have a short video – viewable on our social media platforms and website – where we take a closer look at an object accompanied by a blog post that can be found here where we go into further detail.

Be on the lookout for this fun series. We’re looking forward to bringing it to you as well as all the fun and entertaining stories that come from it!

The Story of the Holy Child of Atocha

The Mathis collections at Villa Finale contain so much religious art that one would naturally think Walter Mathis, its collector, was a very religious man.  In fact, his collecting of such items was for the mere admiration of the items as art, and they can be found throughout the house.  Of course, he displayed all of them together in different parts of the house according to their provenance like with the Spanish colonial “retablos” found in the upstairs hallway.

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Retablos in Villa Finale’s upstairs hallway.

A “retablo,” called a  “lamina” in Mexico, is an oil paiting of a Catholic saint painted on wood or tin, and sometimes on bronze.  These retablos, which means “behind the altar,” mostly adorned altars in people’s homes.  As a kid, I remember my grandmother in Tijuana, Mexico having many of these images at home.  There were some that were quite frightening – like one of the devil coming to pick up a man on his deathbed … but I guess they were meant to scare kids straight – and one that always caught my attention, as it did my other cousins, of the Holy Child of Atocha or El Santo Niño de Atocha.  One of my cousins asked my grandmother one day what made this child a saint.  My grandmother, in what was her usual comedic way, answered simply, “Beats me, but he’s a very saintly child!”

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Walter Mathis’ Holy Child of Atocha

When I came to work at Villa Finale in 2008, the image of the Holy Child of Atocha in my grandmother’s house popped in my head when I saw that Mr. Mathis had an Atocha child retablo in his upstairs hallway collection.  Of course, I was very excited because this saint has always been one of my favorites!  Funny thing was, just like my grandmother, I didn’t know what made this child a saint until I began researching the collections for my interpretive duties at Villa Finale.  Well, now I can tell you what makes the Holy Child of Atocha a saint!

It all begins back in 711 AD with the invasion by the northern African Moors of the Iberian Peninsula, which included most of modern Spain.  In the 13th century, after the Moors took over the town of Atocha, a central suburb in today’s Madrid, they encarcerated Catholic males and prevented their families from giving them food and water. The only exception to that rule was children under 12 who were allowed to visit and feed family members.  This left jailed men without young children – or children altogether – in quite a quandary.  Their relatives began to pray for help from Our Lady of Atocha, the local name of the holy Virgin Mary and Christ Child located in the town’s chapel.

One day, the local children who were out feeding their captive relatives returned with reports of an unidentified boy who the Moors were allowing to feed all the men who had not been previously attended to.  This boy, reported the children, appeared to be under 12 years old, was dressed in pilgrim attire (with a plumed hat and cloak) and carried a basket of food and gourd full of water.  The miraculous thing was no matter how many prisoners the child fed, his gourd and his basket remained full.  As sightings of the child continued, the people of Atocha ran to the chapel to give thanks.  There, they discovered that the little sandals worn by the Christ Child figure in the arms of Our Lady of Atocha were worn and dusty.  They replaced the sandals only to find them worn and dusty again as the child feeding the prisoners continued his rounds day after day.

The Muslim rule by the Moors finally ended in 1492, but by then the miracles of the Holy Child of Atocha were well known and revered throughout Iberia.  Eventually, the reverence of the Holy Child of Atocha made its way to the New World with the arrival of the Spanish.  By 1554 there was a statue of the Child brought from Atocha to Zacatecas, Mexico where the villagers immediately began reporting sightings of the boy.  And thus the Santo Niño’s adventures in the Americas began.

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Traditional portrayal

In religious art, the Holy Child is typically depicted wearing a large-brimmed plumed pilgrim’s hat, cloak, and sandals.  Sometimes he is barefoot to denote the wearing out of his sandals from walking.  He carries a basket in one hand and staff in the other.  The gourd for water is fastened to the end of the staff.  Other symbolism associated with the image are stalks of wheat, flowers and scallop shell meant to represent holy pilgrimages.  Today, there are two main shrines in the Americas to the Holy Child of Atocha: one in Fresnillo, Zacatecas, Mexico and the other is in the Sanctuario in Chimayo, New Mexico.  The Holy Child is the patron saint of the unjustly imprisoned, the protector of travelers and rescuer of those in danger.

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Holy Child of Atocha in Zacatecas, Mexico.  (From screen capture, YouTube user Viajero981)

 

Next time you come to Villa Finale, take a good look at all the religious art in the collection.  What kind of symbolism do you see?  What part of a story do you think it tells?  And make sure you look for El Santo Niño de Atocha in the upstairs hallway now that you know what makes him a “very saintly child.”  My grandmother would be proud!

You Can Help Villa Finale Preserve History

Meg and I have been busy bees conducting research on and off site. We’ve enjoyed looking through old photographs and documents in our quest to put together enjoyable and informative exhibits at the Visitor Center, as well as compiling information for our research files.  Late last week we had the idea of soliciting help from you, our wonderful blog readers!  This is what we are looking for:

1)  Former residents who lived in Villa Finale (the Norton -Polk House) while it was still subdivided into apartments.  This would be any time before 1967.

2)  Residents who own old photographs, documents, and or newspapers, as well as objects having to do with the history of the King William neighborhood (pre 1985).

3)  Artwork, including paintings and drawings of the neighborhood and its historic buildings

If you or anyone you know own any of the above, we would love to hear from you.  Your help will assist us in compiling neighborhood information and adding much valued items to our research files.  Thanks everyone!

Back porch of Villa Finale during one of Mr. Mathis's events, ca. 1990

Back porch of Villa Finale during one of Mr. Mathis's events, ca. 1990

–Sylvia Hohenshelt

Cleaning Noah’s Ark-Not Such a Big Job

I have finally gotten down in the basement to process the collections down there.  I started with my favorite thing down there-a wooden 19th century Noah’s Ark from Germany.  Here is a video about the process:

–Meg Nowack