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Favorite things: Sarah Orne Jewett’s eyeglasses

Jun 25, 2020

This is one in a series of messages from staff about their “favorite things” at Historic New England.

Marilyn Keith Daly is Historic New England’s South Berwick Site Manager, overseeing Hamilton House and Sarah Orne Jewett House Museum and Visitor Center since 2015.

My favorite thing

One of my favorite things at Sarah Orne Jewett House Museum is the assemblage of Jewett’s eyeglasses — three pairs — hanging from one of the mirrors in her bedroom.

A voracious reader and prolific writer, Sarah often discussed her work and books in letters to her many friends. She wrote to her life partner Annie Fields in a 1903 letter, “I’ve been reading hard all day…I feel I’ve overeaten with my head!!!”

Sarah’s eyeglasses—such a personal and such a necessary object — are an immediate connection to her. As someone reliant on and yet constantly misplacing my eyeglasses, I love that Sarah has multiple pairs there.

Sarah’s bedroom has been essentially unchanged since her death in 1909. Standing in her room and seeing the eyeglasses hanging on the mirror, one has the sense that she has merely stepped out for a bit, perhaps to go riding on her horse Sheila. Perhaps she has gone riding over to Hamilton House, a place she loved all her life, to visit her friends, Emily and Elise Tyson, the homeowners who restored Hamilton House in the early twentieth century.

Connection to Hamilton House

At Hamilton House, there is a photograph of Sarah with Emily Tyson, taken in 1905 by Elise. Elise Tyson (later Vaughan), was a gifted amateur photographer, and this picture shows her talent. In the photograph, Emily Tyson and Sarah Orne Jewett, dressed in lovely white summer dresses of the period, stand in the doorway of Hamilton House, lush greenery all around. Aware that their picture is being taken, they smile in an amused way. Elise, has captured her subjects with affection. It is as if she too is smiling.

Sarah looks off in the distance, her smile a bit enigmatic. Perhaps she is thinking how pleased she is with the Tysons’ restoration of the house and grounds. It was Sarah who urged them to consider purchasing it in 1898. And around Sarah’s neck, a chain, on which hang a pair of her eyeglasses. It seems very likely that these are one of the pairs that hang from the mirror in her bedroom today.

Learn more

Explore more about Sarah Orne Jewett, her home in South Berwick, Maine, and the other items of interest in the house. Read more about Sarah Orne Jewett and her relationship with Annie Fields in the Historic New England magazine’s Fall 2018 issue.

Marilyn and other South Berwick friends and staff
Marilyn (far right) with some of her favorite people