J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, August 28, 2006

Pistol Problematics at Harvard

Harvard alumni magazine offers a brief article on two eighteenth-century pistols in the Houghton Library's collection. It's subtitled "Problematics in the Z Closet," Z being the library's acquisition code for "How can we possibly shelve this?"

These pistols came to the Houghton in 1944; the donor had bought them in 1896 in an auction of sketches and souvenirs from George Washington's short-term aide-de-camp and painter John Trumbull. There was a sketch of these guns labeled "Washington's Headquarters Pistols."

Maybe not. Probably not. Almost certainly not. The sketches are no longer thought to be genuine Trumbulls, leaving no reason to believe these pistols were Trumbull's, either. The initials "GW" and "1776" are carved on the guns, but did they have any connection with Washington at all?

Harvard's Artemas Ward fellow Philip Mead, whom I met this summer at the Dublin Seminar, offers magazine readers the faintest glimmer of hope, saying that pistols of this sort were around during the Revolution, and some swords associated with Washington's Life Guard have the general's initials on them. But if you were forging Trumbull drawings in the 1890s, would you have any compunction about carving initials and numbers onto a pair of old pistols?

Still, it's more useful for the Houghton Library to display these pistols and discuss what they tell us about collectors' admiration for Washington than to keep them hidden in the Z Closet. (Tip of the hat to Dorothy Bell for alerting me to this article.)

1 comment:

J. L. Bell said...

Alfred F. Young offered this comment by email:
When I was guest curator at Chicago Historical Society for the exhibit "We the People" on the Amer Rev (1987-2005), we went thru a large collection of artifacts donated by a candy magnate years before. It included "Martha Washington's sewing box," "Benjamin Franklin's printer's stick" etc. Alas, the collector also had the skin of the snake of the Garden of Eden. The printer's stick we could authenticate, but no way to confirm BF's use. The sewing box when opened up had someone else's name.

So we exhibited the printing stick with some genuine 18th-c newspapers and we exhibited the sewing box with a collection of women's samplers.

If the pistols can be authenticated, they can be exhibited as rev era pistols in some other historical framework: e.g., weapons of the Rev. At the CHS show the guns were among the most popular exhibits. People crave real things that put them in touch with the past.