Monday, March 28, 2011

Dames to Docents March 26, 2011

Docents mingle during breakfast before the program begins.
This past Saturday, March 26, four representatives from The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of Illinois (NSCDA-IL)  visited to speak to our docents about their organization and its relationaship to Clarke House Museum. The program was held in the Beidler Room of Glessner House Museum, located just north of Clarke House at 1800 S. Prairie Avenue.  Refreshments were served at 9:30 a.m. with the program running from 10 until 11:30 a.m.

The ladies on the panel all currently serve on the NSCDA-IL Museum Properties Committee, which oversees the collections housed at Clarke House Museum and greatly contributes to exhibits, public programming and educational initiatives. The Illinois Society was invited by the City of Chicago to furnish the recently relocated Clarke House in 1978. Since then, NSCDA-IL has been an intregal part of the restoration, preservation, and interpretation of Chicago's oldest structure.
Glessner House Museum Executive Director & Curator,
Bill Tyre, welcomes everyone to the Beidler Room.
Patriotic Service Chair Jean Perkins opened the morning's discussion with a history of The National Society of The Colonial Dames which was founded in 1891. At the core of NSCDA's mission is the preservation of historic propeties.  Jean informed the group that NSCDA owns and maintains more historic buildings than the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

Jean continued to talk about the foundation of the Illinois Society in 1896, Fortnightly Club in Chicago, and the decision to take on Clarke House as the Illinois Society's museum property.

Jean Perkins (left) and Cami Burgess (right)
Cami Burgess, First Vice-President Membership, spoke about membership requirements to become a Dame. Membership is handled at the state level, depending on where one's ancestor lived. A Dame might be a member of the Illinois Society, but if her ancestor was from Virginia, for example, the approval of her paperwork would go through that Society. Ladies eligible for membership with NSCDA-IL are proposed by a current member and must prove lineage to an ancestor that contributed siginificantly to the original thirteen colonies.

 Mary Glerum, Docents & Education, talked about the Society's decision to contract museum consultants Jane and Richard Nylander for an assesment of Clarke House back in 2009. Their findings resulted in the Nylander Report, a thirty-two page document which outlines recommendations for improving interpretation at Clarke House. Mary Glerum is also a certified docent at Glessner House Musem who understands the impact the Nylander Report has had and will continue to have on tours, programming, and general interpretation. Mary also discussed plans for the 175th Anniversary Celebration taking place at Clarke House in September. The Dames are planning an evening gala event and symposium featuring the Nylanders as keynote speakers.

Marilyn Helmholz, Budget Chair, also sat on the Dames panel during the event and contributed much to the question and answer session held during the latter half of the program. The Dames answered questions posed by the Glessner House Museum Docents on the effects of the new furnishings plan to be implemented at Clarke House, period of interpretation, and plans for new acquisitions.

Assistant Curator, Becky Young, welcomes the Dames panel (left to right) Jean Perkins,
Cami Burgess, Mary Glerum, and Marilyn Helmholz.
 The Glessner House Museum staff and docents wish to extend a hearty thanks to the ladies of the Museum Properties Committee for their participation in Dames to Docents. We all eagerly look forward to working with them as the anniversary celebration approaches.

If you're interested in learning more about other properties maintained by The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America and their State Societies, check out these links:

NSCDA Museum Properties Map

Illinois Dames

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Friendly Game of Chess

The North West Sitting Room at Clarke House Museum is similar to the modern-day family room. As the most casual space in the home, the Clarkes would have used this sitting room for informal conversation and evening diversions. Mrs. Clarke and her daughters, Mary and Caroline, would have settled down in the evenings to do needlework or read. Her four boys may have also read or pulled up a couple of chairs to engage one another in a game.

The North West Sitting Room has been recently staged for a chess game between Robert (age 19) and his brother Edward (age 13) in 1857. The board is home-made, painted black and red, with delicately carved ivory pieces belonging to a finer game board, long ago lost. In addition to playing games, the Clarke boys might have used their leisure time in the evening to catch up on the current issues of the day. They may have talked about the present recession or about the slave issue and murmurings of secession.

A reproduction of a June 1857 issue of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Magazine is casually laid over the chess board in the sitting room as if Robert has just set it aside. Engravings of Dred Scott, his wife, and two daughters grace the front page.

Scott became famous after a long-fought court battle to gain freedom for himself and his family. In March of 1857, the Supreme Court ruled that because Scott was black, he was not a citizen and therefore had no right to sue for his freedom. The court's decision also declared the Missouri Compromise of 1820, legislation which restricted slavery in certain territories, unconstitutional. While the decision was well-received by slaveholders in the South, many northerners were outraged. The decision greatly influenced the nomination of Abraham Lincoln to the Republican Party and his subsequent election, which in turn led to the South's secession from the Union.
(Courtesy of

The Clarkes would have been very aware of the Dred Scott case and its implications. Where exactly they stood on the issue of slavery and full freedom for blacks is unknown, but it is certain that it was a topic of conversation in their social circle. The family Sitting Room was a space where polite, inoffensive conversation could be set aside in favor of speaking candidly about social and political issue within the confines of the home, perhaps over a friendly game of chess.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Object Found in Collection, Now On Exhibit

A painted c. 1840 rocking chair, documented as once being on exhibit in the North East Sitting Room, was rediscovered today stored behind the false wall in the Second Floor Gallery (North Central Room). The chair was purchased by The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in the State of Illinois (NSCDA-IL) in June of 1987 from Taylor B. Williams Antiques in Chicago.

Simple, with slender spindles at the back and turned rungs, the chair is beautifully decorated. Typical for the 1840s period, it mimics Japanese lacquer with a coat of red paint applied as a base and covered with black over top. The seat has faux graining meant to resemble flame mahogany, edged in gold paint. The back rest features a stenciled design of a sailor, sailboats, and houses.
A mysterious "B" is painted in black under the seat. Could it be a clue to the original owner?
This piece is now on exhibit in the South East Bed Chamber (Girls' Room).
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