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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Saturday, May 10, 2008

John Adams Reviews Rachel Wells’s Waxwork

A few days ago I mentioned a museum in Norwalk, Connecticut, that Robert Treat Paine and John Adams visited on their way to the Continental Congress. Here’s another letter from John to Abigail Adams about public exhibits during the war, sent from Philadelphia on 10 May 1777:

The Day before Yesterday, I took a Walk, with my Friend [William] Whipple to Mrs. [Rachel] Wells’s, the Sister of the famous Mrs. [Patience] Wright, to see her Waxwork. She has two Chambers filled with it.

In one, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is represented. The Prodigal is prostrate on his Knees, before his Father, whose joy, and Grief, and Compassion all appear in his Eyes and Face, struggling with each other. A servant Maid, at the Fathers command, is pulling down from a Closet Shelf, the choicest Robes, to cloath the Prodigal, who is all in Rags. At an outward Door, in a Corner of the Room stands the elder Brother, chagrined at this Festivity, a Servant coaxing him to come in. A large Number of Guests, are placed round the Room.

In another Chamber, are the Figures of Chatham, [Benjamin] Franklin, [John] Sawbridge, Mrs. [Catherine] Maccaulay, and several others. At a Corner is a Miser, sitting at his Table, weighing his Gold, his Bag upon one Side of the Table, and a Thief behind him, endeavouring to pilfer the Bag.

There is Genius, as well as Taste and Art, discovered in this Exhibition: But I must confess, the whole Scæne was disagreable to me. The Imitation of Life was too faint, and I seemed to be walking among a Group of Corps’s, standing, sitting, and walking, laughing, singing, crying, and weeping. This Art I think will make but little Progress in the World.

Another Historical Piece I forgot, which is Elisha, restoring to Life the Shunamite’s Son. The Joy of the Mother, upon Discerning the first Symptoms of Life in the Child, is pretty strongly expressed.

Dr. Chevots Waxwork, in which all the various Parts of the human Body are represented, for the Benefit of young Students in Anatomy and of which I gave you a particular Description, a Year or two ago, were much more pleasing to me. Wax is much fitter to represent dead Bodies, than living ones.
The thumbnail image above is Patience Wright’s wax portrait of Admiral Richard Howe, now the property of the Newark Museum. Here’s a link to Rachel Wells’s unsuccessful plea for New Jersey to repay money she claimed she had loaned that state during the war.

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