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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Sunday, November 09, 2014

“Washington Elm” Exhibit in Cambridge

On Thursday, 13 November, the Cambridge Historical Society hosts an opening reception for its special exhibit on “The Washington Elm,” featuring the photography of Bruce Myren (one example shown here).

That elm, as I’ve discussed, was associated in the late 1800s with a moment on 3 July 1775 when Gen. George Washington was said to have taken command of the Continental Army, often pictured as drawn up in ranks for his review.

In reality, Washignton probably took command indoors on 2 July 1775 when he met Gen. Artemas Ward, and he and Gen. Charles Lee inspected the troops in their various positions around Boston over the next several days.

But the tree became a national symbol. This exhibit explores the artifacts it gave rise to:
historic representations of the Elm, pieces of the tree, collectibles made from the Elm’s wood, and Myren’s large-format pictures of scions, cuttings grown to create clones of the original tree. . . . Images of the Elm appeared on teacups, on stationery, and in paintings, while scions were planted by the hundreds across the country.

When the tree fell in 1923, it was cut into pieces, with cross sections going to the capitals of the forty-eight states, the White House, and the Capitol, and blocks going to prominent citizens across the country.

Myren quotes the English philosopher Bernard Williams when describing the show: “A myth is a fanciful picture of the past designed to justify certain activities in the present.”
The reception is from 6:00 to 8:00 P.M. on 13 November at the Hooper-Lee-Nichols House on Brattle Street. The exhibit will also be open for viewing on Saturday, 22 November, from 11:00 A.M. to 3:00 P.M. The society will announce additional hours on its website.


notloB said...

I find it interesting that in 1975, "The Old Schwamb Mill obtained the last remaining timbers from the "Washington Elm" (under which General George Washington assumed command of all colonial troops on 3 July 1775). The Mill manufactured for sale 75 spandrel frames using wood from the Washington Elm. Each frame contained a print showing Washington taking command of the Continental Army."
Source: http://www.oldschwambmill.org/research/new_timeline.html

J. L. Bell said...

Folks started creating souvenirs from the prunings of the Washington Elm in the mid-1800s. The poet Henry W. Longfellow received some before he died, I know. Then the tree fell in the 1920s. A lot more mementos were made at that time, including gavels sent to every state house in the U.S. of A.

It's conceivable that some of that timber remained when the Bicentennial came around. Or the Old Schwamb Mill might have repurposed wood that had been made into one souvenir to produce 75 more. How large might those spandrel frames have been?