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Carolin Collins has been the Education Program Manager for Historic New England since 2010. Let Carolin tell us about her favorite thing at Historic New England.
When I started, one of my first projects was to develop a new school program at Castle Tucker in Wiscasset, Maine. I quickly fell in love with the property and the Tuckers. They are a truly fascinating family, with endless stories. They also saved everything, from family letters to grocery receipts – giving us so many access points into their lives.
My favorite single object in the house is the Hoosier cabinet. Hoosier cabinets are a type of freestanding kitchen cabinet complete with workspace, built in storage bins, and all sorts of other bells and whistles including a printed shopping list with small sliding metal tabs to indicate what you are running low on, and a menu planning wheel.
This piece aligns with my personal interests on several levels. It is almost like a full kitchen miniaturized, like a living diorama or a Joseph Cornell box you can use, and I love dioramas and Joseph Cornell boxes! I am also drawn to the menu wheel: choose a protein to display in the window and—poof!—the vegetables and starches to go with it appear. I collect vintage cookbooks, especially ones that promise the perfect menu for various occasions: what the ideal hostess would serve at a garden party, a ladies’ luncheon, a neighborhood buffet, or the like, and the suggestions in the cabinet appeal to me for the same reason. Maybe it is the promise of order in a chaotic world, or the admittedly regressive fantasy of being a lady of leisure…
This particular cabinet also holds a story, an illustration of family dynamics that fits perfectly within the school program, In Search of a Story: The Children of Castle Tucker, in which middle school students use their time in the house for research and inspiration for the short piece of historical fiction they write back in their classroom.
Jane (Jennie) Armstrong Tucker, the youngest of the five Tucker children, bought the Hoosier cabinet for her elderly mother Mollie using money that was a Christmas gift from her older brother Dick, who lived in California.
Jennie wrote to him: Thank you so much for my Christmas check—all our money went into kitchen cabinet and Ma wonders now how we ever got on without it—cuts all her work in half—while the baking, muffins, cakes, pies, etc., there is a wonderful saving of time and strength trotting back and forth for things . . . it’s like playing house . . . I had a struggle to make her use all the things but now she enjoys it all –The porcelain table to mix and knead on seems so much healthier than the old board—it got mouldy and sour—for Ma couldn’t keep it as clean as she used to—This she washes off in a second—like a dish and the drawers keep the grains so sweet and dry, we notice the difference at once in muffins, etc. [Jane A. Tucker to Richard Tucker, III, Jan. 7, 1921, writing from Wiscasset]
As a young woman, Jennie had tried many jobs in many places. She even worked as a spy during a Congressional sex scandal. There is a wonderful article, “Jane Armstrong Tucker, Girl Spy,” in the Fall 2012 issue of Historic New England magazine. She eventually returned home and helped her mother care for the house. When her mother and father first married, they were well off financially but suffered several reversals of fortune. By the time Jennie returned home for good, they were trying all sorts of things to stay afloat, some more successful than others. In 1921, Mollie was near the end of her long life. She died in 1922 at the age of eighty-one.
I can imagine her, in those last years of her life, working away in the kitchen as she had always done, but now with everything at her fingertips, Jennie close by, but not intruding, allowing her mother this last bit of independence without worry about anything being “mouldy or sour.”
Read more about the Tuckers and their “castle.”