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: https://theblackinventionsmuseum.org

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

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 Five by Sara Taylor

Interpretive Guide, Sara Taylor

The Curse of the Mummy

On April 5th 1923, five months after opening the tomb, Lord Carnarvon died of blood poisoning caused by an infected mosquito bite that had progressed to pneumonia. According to popular legend, the moment he died all the lights when out in Cairo (though power outages were not uncommon at the time) and Carnarvon’s dog howled mournfully at the exact same moment before dying itself. This account was given by Carnarvon’s son, though it is worth noting that he was far away in India at the time of his father’s and the dog’s deaths.

Lord Carnarvon (from Wikipedia)

Speculation about what might have been the exact cause of his death was fueled by newspapers, some of which had been denied exclusive coverage of the tomb, threw more fuel on the fire by claiming it was the “Mummy’s Curse.” Depending on who you talk to, anywhere from four to eight deaths were attributed to Tut’s curse.

The idea of a “mummy’s curse” or a “curse of the Pharaohs” wasn’t a new one and its origins could be traced back to the mid-19th century and Victorian fiction writers, such as Louisa May Alcott, who drew upon this idea that Egypt was a mysterious and mystical place, which went back all the way to antiquity. In 1903 Bram Stoker, author of Dracula, published a book called The Jewel of the Seven Stars which told the story of an archaeologist suffering from the curse of a disturbed mummy.

When the Titanic sank in 1912, rumors of a mummy of an Egyptian priestess being the cause of the sinking resulted in the British Museum publishing flyers for the general public stating that no such mummy had even been on the Titanic. 

So, by the time Tut was discovered in 1922, the general public were more than primed to expect supernatural experiences with anything associated with Ancient Egypt. 

While Egyptian tombs and sarcophagi were covered in protective spells and prayers to ensure a successful journey to the afterlife, curses such as we think of them did not exist in Egypt. The Ancient Egyptians thought it was bad luck to even write down the possibility of tomb robberies and so these formulaic sayings were more along the lines of, “the robber will suffer from a disease that no doctor can diagnose” than “death floats on silent wings to those who disturb the pharaoh’s rest.”

Sarcophagus (British Museum)

Carter himself thought the whole business of “the mummy’s curse” was “tommy-rot” and of almost 58 people who were at the tomb at the time of its opening, its documentation, and the opening of the sarcophagus, only eight or nine deaths were attributed to the mummy’s curse and none hold up under further inspection.

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

Interpretive Guide, Sara Taylor

At the turn of the century, the world was changing. The Victorian era had just ended and Edward VII now ruled the British Empire, on which the sun never set. By 1901 Egypt was a de-facto British protectorate under nominal Ottoman control and there was a growing nationalist movement. In 1914 the British government established the Sultanate of Egypt and a growing interest in preserving Egypt’s pharaonic past grew among native Egyptians.

In 1908, American lawyer turned Egyptologist Theodore M. Davis, who had been excavating in the Valley of the Kings for years, announced that he feared “The Valley of the Tombs is completely exhausted.”

Oh, how wrong he was.

Carter with sarcophagus (from Wikicommons)

The Tomb of the Century

While many feared the Valley of the Kings had been exhausted of its tombs and treasures and that nothing more could learned from it, British Egyptologist Howard Carter and his financial backer George Herbert, the 5th Lord of Carnarvon, were not so convinced.

Since 1894 Carter had worked and studied under some of the greats of Egyptology including our friend Flinders Petrie.

Carter started working for Lord Carnarvon in 1907 and in 1922 Lord Carnarvon, who was dissatisfied by the lack of results, agreed to fund one more season of excavation.

In November of that same year, Carter returned and began excavating near some abandoned huts. Not long after that, a water boy named Hussein Abdel Rasoul stumbled upon what later turned out to be part of a stairway. Immediately Carter sent a telegram to Lord Carnarvon and by the time Lord Carnarvon and his daughter arrived two weeks later, the stairway was clear, revealing the still sealed door stamped with the cartouche of the pharaoh Tutankhamun.

Hussein Abdek Rasoul (from Pectorial, BBC.com)

The Young King

Tutankhamen came to the throne circa 1332 BCE at the tender age of nine, and reigned until circa 1323 BCE, after the turbulent reigns of his father Akhenaten and his immediate successors, Smenkhkare and Neferneferaten.

Akhenaten, whom most Egyptologists agree was likely Tut’s father, turned away from the traditional worship of the Egyptian pantheon, attempting to wrest power from the powerful high priests at the temple of Karnak and moving the capital to an isolated region, now known as Amarna, away from Egypt’s traditional religious and economic centers.

While scholars still debate to what extent Akhenaten’s attempt at monotheism really disrupted the lives of every day ancient Egyptians, it was enough that Tut and his advisors had to issue several declarations re-establishing the old traditions, restoring several temples, and re-asserting Egyptian military power.

When Tut died after reigning a mere ten years he was buried in a small tomb that was not meant to be his. His cause of death was likely a combination of malaria and a broken leg. His short reign after years of turmoil, followed by the succession of a new Dynasty, helped ensure his tomb remained relatively undisturbed until 1922.

Face reconstruction of what King Tut may have looked like (with a modern rendition on the right) by @royalty_now_ (Left Image: © reconstruction Elisabeth Daynes, Right Image pieces: iStock Photo & Pixabay.com)

In the middle of the night before the official opening of the tomb Carter, Carnarvon, and Lady Evelyn sneaked to the tomb and chiseled a small opening in the door and after putting a candle through, Carnarvon asked Carter “Can you see anything?” And Carter replied, “Yes! Wonderful things!”

The tomb was crammed with artifacts that the Ancient Egyptians believed that the pharaoh would need in the afterlife – chariots, bows, jewelry, and offerings of food. His tomb also contained a favorite tunic he had worn as a child, embroidered with ducks, and the small remains of Tutankhamen’s two daughters.

Tut Death Mask (from Wikicommons)

Carter and the Egyptologists he recruited to help catalogue all the artifacts in the tomb were very meticulous even for the standards of the day, but even so it would take them another ten years to fully clear the tomb of all its contents!

If you’d like to read Howard Carter’s notes on the excavation check out the Griffith Institute’s website below.


“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.


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!”


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.


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.


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