“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!

Villa Finale is celebrating five years: A look back at how we got here!

Villa Finale: Museum & Gardens will be celebrating its 5th anniversary of being open to the public on Friday, October 2nd. Although five years do not sound like much, a lot has happened during that time. I am one of three remaining staff members that were hired before the museum was open to the public, so I thought I would share some reminiscences with you regarding everything that went into opening this historic site and some of the experiences since then.

San Antonio or bust! My car loaded and ready to go from Los Angeles, with three cats in the back, April 2008.

San Antonio or bust! My car loaded and ready to go from Los Angeles, with three cats in the back, April 2008.

I first came to Villa Finale from Los Angeles in early March, 2008 for my interview. It was not only my first time at the site, it was also my first time in San Antonio! I immediately fell in love with the King William District and I remember thinking I was in Disneyland as I made my way from the bed and breakfast where I was staying to Villa Finale for my interview.  The interview I felt went well but just in case I did not get the job I made it a point to see the Alamo just in case it would be my last time in San Antonio for who knew how long.  Little did I know Sandra Smith, who was Villa Finale’s Director at the time, would call me a couple of days later to offer me the position of Manager of Public Programs. Taking the position was a scary decision since my entire family was, and still is, in Southern California; plus, I didn’t know one single person in San Antonio. But I could not pass up this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Not every museum professional gets the opportunity to conceptualize and open a historic site from scratch! In a month I trained my replacement at the historic site where I was employed, packed my apartment,found a place to live in San Antonio, transferred all my personal business and arrived at my new home with three cats in tow on Sunday, April 6th.  On April 9th I officially began at Villa Finale.

Under construction!

Under construction!

My first order of business was to become immersed in San Antonio history, especially the great accomplishments by Walter Nold Mathis. I had to write subject documents on all the major themes covered at the site: King William, Villa Finale (the house), Walter Mathis and the Mathis collections.  Mind you, as a Southern Californian born and raised it wasn’t entirely easy although I had a great understanding and knowledge of the mission system in the West and Southwest. On weekends, I made it a point to go downtown and visit the missions as well as other places of interest to become familiar with the city and its history.  For weeks, I visited archives all over town with Meg Nowack, Villa Finale’s Curator and Deputy Director, accumulating photographs and historic information to use for our exhibitions and interpretive material.

With Meg Nowack in Villa Finale's kitchen planning out exhibits for the Visitor Center, late 2008.

With Meg in Villa Finale’s kitchen planning exhibits for the Visitor Center, 2009.

The most difficult part was becoming familiar with Walter Mathis’ collections since most objects were packed in boxes. Somehow I found a way to write about things I couldn’t really see! I am so thankful to my colleague Meg Nowack who was patient and kind enough to guide me during that first year towards useful places I could find the information I needed. She was also great to work with as we put together exhibitions for our former Visitor Center that was located at 122 Madison. And speaking of colleagues, Meg and Chris Roddy, our former Buildings & Grounds Manager, and their spouses became my very first friends in San Antonio. They welcomed me into their homes and we all got together for dinner or happy hour every week. To this day, I am so grateful to them for their hospitality and friendship!

First volunteer class, 2009.

First volunteer class, 2009.

A little over one year before Villa Finale opened to the public I began to put together Villa Finale’s guided tour and a volunteer program (since I also assumed volunteer coordinator duties at the time) including writing a volunteer handbook, an orientation model, and guide training materials including a syllabus. Being someone who began in the field as a museum volunteer, I knew Villa Finale’s volunteer program should be welcoming, inclusive and informative. I will never forget that first class of volunteers – some of which are still with us – for not being intimidated to study and learn the tour we give at Villa Finale. The over 12,000 individual objects we have in the house have been known to “scare” people away from becoming guides. Fortunately, most stay and become very enthusiastic about Villa Finale!

Volunteers at our opening celebration, September 2010.

Volunteers at our opening celebration, September 2010.

As volunteer training revved up, so did work at the house, inside and outside. Cleaning, repairing, unpacking and putting everything back just as Walter Mathis had it by using photographs taken right after he passed away in 2005. When I first arrived at Villa Finale, opening day seemed so far away.  Meg, Chris and I ofted joked among ourselves about how nice it was to have this wonderful historic house to ourselves!  Finally, the day that seemed so far into the future came: our grand opening celebration on September 30, 2010. I remember being so proud of seeing our first class of volunteers in action! But the real thrill came when we opened to the public on October 2nd. After all, Mathis left this wonderful gift to share with the general public and really, this is for them!  The day of our opening, I remember reflecting on everything that was accomplished to get to that moment: the creation of marketing blurbs, interpretive materials, designing a logo, work in and around the house, recruiting volunteers … so much leading up to it, and much more to do!

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Volunteer Guide, Dalal, leads one of the first public tours at Villa Finale, October 2, 2010.

Since our public opening on that day in 2010, there has been much change and growth at Villa Finale.  With our ongoing research, we have updated a lot of guide training and marketing materials.  We have also left the former Visitor Center at 122 Madison to focus operations at the historic site and are currectly thinking about how we can provide visitors that service at Villa Finale’s grounds.  We have tried hosting some events and programs that haven’t quite worked out while others have been amazingly successful.  To be more identifable to the general public, we added “Museum & Gardens” to our name, a small move that has helped immensly.  I have also seen volunteers come and go, all wonderful people who enjoyed their time with us but had to leave due to life’s demands.  And of course, great colleagues have also come and gone.  I have also had the pleasure of seeing several folks from our volunteer and intern ranks promoted to staff positions, including our current Execuitve Director, Jane Lewis.

Villa Finale as Grand Marshals of the King William Parade, April 2011.

Villa Finale as Grand Marshals of the King William Parade, April 2011.

Villa Finale is truly a labor of love and I am so happy I made the difficult decision to move so far away from home to be a part of this great project. Today, I have many wonderful life-long friends in this city, many of whom I’ve met through my work at the site and through colleagues. If you haven’t visited Villa Finale yet, I invite you to do so! Perhaps your first visit could be at our 5th anniversary celebration called That Was the Year That Was: 1967 on Friday, October 2, 2015 from 5:30pm – 8:00pm (admission is free). Mathis bought the house in 1967 and we wouldn’t be here without him!

Thank you, San Antonio for your growing support these first five years. Also, thank you to all of my colleagues, past and present, for making and continuing to develop Villa Finale. And a HUGE thank you to my friend, former colleague and professional mentor Max van Balgooy who told me about Villa Finale and provided much-needed guidance during my first couple of years here. I cannot wait to see what the future brings!

Enjoy the gallery below featuring glimpses of Villa Finale: Museum & Gardens history!

Villa Finale Retreats to Fort Worth – Part 3

My last post ended with our staff leaving the Fort Worth Water Gardens on our way to the Amon Carter Museum of American Art on the third day of our staff retreat.  First, a little background.  Amon G. Carter was the founder of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, a civic leader and a collector of American art.  (There is much more to Amon G. Carter: for more information click here.)  He died in 1955 but in his will left terms for the creation of a museum to house his collection plus other fine examples of fine American art.

Today, the Amon Carter Museum of American Art houses many fine examples of paintings and sculptures.  Further, the museum educates the public through a variety of special exhibits and programs.  We were fortunate enough to be there during a grammar school visit; normally, this would be a distraction if you’re just visiting for fun, but being in the field, you are always looking for ideas to incorporate into your organization.  Some of the art may seem a little daunting for children to grasp; however, when given the opportunity and with the right guidance, young people can and do appreciate many subjects adults may otherwise not give them credit for understanding.  I listened in on some of the instruction and conversation the children were engaged in; the educators at Amon Carter were really making the kids use their own experiences and powers of observation to convey the messages seen in the art … kudos to them!

Aside from “eavesdropping” a bit on the school children’s lesson, our staff had ample time to view the beautiful art throughout the museum.  Personally, I also enjoy reading text on all the labels.  This is great because you learn more about the work and an artist, but not so great when you’re pressed for time!  And indeed we were as we made a short walk down to our next stop: the Kimbell Art Museum.

Before I get into the wonderful art found throughout the Kimbell, I would like to first mention the ingenious design of the main building which is the work of Louis Kahn.  Completed in 1972, the structure is designed with light as the main theme.  Kahn’s designed called for barrel vault ceilings with narrow plexglass “skylights” that would allow for natural light.  However, in order to avoid direct light from damaging the pieces within, the natural light is disseminated by aluminum reflectors that hang directly underneath each skylight.  The result is an open and bright gallery that allows for an enjoyable viewing experience of the artwork.

Speaking of the art … amazing!  And so was our docent, Len Schweitzer, who knew the subject matter passionately well!  The permanent collection itself is relatively small, less than 350 pieces, but – following the collections policy established by the Kimbell’s Board of Directors – the works collected into the institution are to be based on the highest quality rather than quantity.  The Kimbell boasts such artists as Caravaggio, Michelangelo, Monet and Matisse, to name but a few.  In addition to paintings, the museum also houses antiquities, Asian, pre-Columbian, and African pieces such as sculptures, ceramics, bronzes and more.  The Kimbell is a MUST-visit when in Fort Worth.  Admission is free and so is an app available for download with visual and audio information (if you do not have a pair of headphones on you, no need to worry.  The Kimbell’s shop has headphones for sale at a reasonable price).

Our staff was exhausted but fulfilled with our trip to Fort Worth.  You really do not know how much one’s state has to offer unless you get out there to explore.  Whether you’re planning to visit Fort Worth or another city near or far, do your research to see what best fits your interests and pocket-book.  So much to explore, so little time!

We’re looking forward to our next retreat in January 2016.  Where we go next remains to be decided!  Any suggestions?