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Preserving a Legacy

ABOVE Miss Ellen Stone in the parlor of the Stephen Robbins House, East Lexington, Mass., c. 1890-1900.

BELOW Waxed paperboard and cork circles with candlewicks, which can be floated on a thin layer of oil in a cup or bowl of water to provide a safe night light in a sickroom or to soothe a frightened child.

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ABOVE Attic of the Stephen Robbins House, c. 1900.

BELOW Memorial to Martin Robbins (1788-92) by his sister Abigail Robbins while a pupil at Mrs. Rowson's Academy in Boston, c. 1805.

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ABOVE & RIGHT Wallpaper and Textile Fragments from the Robbins Family Collection, including kitchen paper ( top right image ) made by Moses Grant, Jr and Co., Boston, 1811-17, various household textiles ( above & bottom right images ).

SPNEA's Decorative Arts Symposium, The Art of Family, will be held in Boston on October 18 and 19, featuring the research of leading historians and decorative arts experts, who will examine what historic artifacts tell us about daily family life. For more information, visit or call 617-227-3957, ext. 270.

When Ellen Adelia Robbins Stone inherited a life tenancy in the old Stephen Robbins House on Massachusetts Avenue in East Lexington, Massachusetts, in 1890, she also became the outright owner of all the furniture, silverware, and personal effects "for her sole use and disposal forever." The house was crammed full, containing not only her parents' possessions but also those of her sister Mary, who had died in 1884, and of their great aunt Caira who had died in 1881. Ellen recognized that she had both a huge responsibility and also a wonderful opportunity. She at once began distributing things to the Essex Institute in Salem, Massachusetts, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Ipswich (Massachusetts) Historical Society, and the Milwaukee Historical Society.

She probably met William Sumner Appleton in 1909, when they were both made honorary members of the Ipswich Historical Society. Appleton had long been interested in preserving household furnishings and domestic artifacts, those things he called "the minor antiquities." He founded SPNEA in 1910 and two years later acquired the Fowler House in Danvers, Massachusetts, with the intention of furnishing it and exhibiting it as a museum. Before the year was out, Miss Stone wrote to him, asking to visit "the old house recently opened by the N. E. Society for the Preservation of N. E. Antiquities [sic]," saying "I should like to visit the place with the idea of seeing what its needs might be and if I could in any way contribute items." Appleton must have responded promptly, for only five days later Miss Stone wrote again enclosing a check intended "to show my interest in the general objects of the Soc'y by becoming an associate member. As I myself live in an old N. E. Homestead and am the last of a long line, I should be very glad to talk with some one who has the needs of the Soc'y. at heart, not with a view to disposing of my house or land but rather the preservation of many objects which might seem to suit a Museum." Miss Stone called on Appleton at SPNEA's headquarters, then located in one half of a room at 20 Beacon Street in Boston, at three o'clock on Friday, January 3, 1913. They must have had a cordial conversation, and she must have impressed him with what she had to offer. It is unclear whether or not Appleton visited her in Lexington before she left for a winter visit to the south, but he wrote to her in June, noting that she had asked him to remind her that perhaps she "would turn over to the Society a part of [her] collections." Knowing that she might prefer to have things exhibited, Appleton continued, "I believe I warned you that whatever was turned over to us would have to be packed away for the time being, against the time when we might have a house to show them in, but I hope this will not discourage you from giving things to us for you have such a wonderful lot of good things, and I can't help hoping that a good proportion of them will find their way here."


Fortunately, SPNEA acquired the Harrison Gray Otis House in Boston as its headquarters in 1916 and six years later was able to connect it with two brick rowhouses in which it established "The New England Museum." Appleton wasted no time in convincing Miss Stone that SPNEA was now a suitable place for her treasures. During the years 1917 to 1933 more than 1500 items were accessioned as gifts from Ellen Stone. A few things were returned as "worthless" or "too motheaten," but over the years Miss Stone gave SPNEA objects that reflected her own interests and those of the recipients-SPNEA's founder and Corresponding Secretary, William Sumner Appleton, and its Curator, George Francis Dow, who left the Essex Institute in 1919 to work with Appleton.


ABOVE More household textiles, and an extrodinary warp-dyed linen window curtain with a self valance and tiny hanging loops, c. 1770-1810.

Among the first gifts to SPNEA from Ellen Stone during the years 1917 to 1919 were "a wonderfully extensive and representative collection, one of the very best the Society has ever received." The gifts included "articles of costume; fabrics; hats and bonnets; books, announcements, railroad tickets; horn combs; carpet bags; thirteen glass lamps; ten candlesticks, pasteboard boxes; baskets; wall paper; printed cotton table cover; ink wells; rocking foot stool; farming implements; kitchen utensils; door latches and hardware; nine Windsor chairs; glass bottles; knives and forks; carpenter's tools; oil painting; wallets; fifty-five pieces of pottery ware; twenty-six pieces of glass ware; etc., etc." In addition, there are many items that document housekeeping procedures and family management such as a container of redding "for polishing brick hearth after it has been washed," matted cobwebs for stopping bleeding, netting used for a sieve, rotten stone used with oil and lots of elbow grease for cleaning brasses, mosquito netting, cork-and-paper "tapers" used as float lamps or night lights, wrapping paper, sticks of twist, toothbrushes, and an eighteenth-century bar of soap in its original wrapper.


Looking at the collections today one finds many dimensions of value that may not have occurred to Ellen Stone. For the most part, the value of these things today is in their association with the reliable information that she provided with each piece. One is now able to visualize many simple tools and accessories of housekeeping and daily life-the nature of the "redding" that was used to restore the color of bricks on a heavily used hearth or fireplace surround, the shape and size of a goose feather basket, a clothes basket, or a gathering basket, as opposed to just any old basket, and the different kinds of fabric available to a housewife.

For Ellen Stone these things had been a source of continuing interest and concern. Thanks to her careful stewardship of family treasures and her meticulous documentation, one can learn much about a single family and through them about the material culture of many New England families.

-Jane Cayford Nylander

Excerpted with permission from Jane C. Nylander's essay in D. Brenton Simons and Peter Benes, The Art of Family: Genealogical Artifacts in New England, New England Historic Genealogical Society, Boston, 2002. The book may be ordered online at

Preserving a Legacy