I find that researching museum objects is a little like solving a mystery.  Instead of asking “who committed a crime,” I find myself asking, “why is this object important.” When I chose my neoclassical item for this blog post I knew nothing about the object other than it fit the time period, I found it easily enough in the collection, and it was used at some point in New York State.  I will be honest and say I was not overly thrilled by the foot stool.  I mean how interesting is a foot stool?

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Neoclassical Footstool, 1810-1820, mahogany/pine/metal/cloth, height 16.25in, length 18.5in, width 15.5in, New York State Historical Association Fenimore Art Museum, N0013.2008(01)a-b.

Upon further inspection, I did find the footstool rather pretty, nice to look at, and in good condition. This foot stool, dated to the second decade of the nineteenth century, is one of a matching pair. Curule legs form two elegant x’s with angled rectangular feet with the legs, support, and frame all curved in shape. The footstool has mahogany veneer over pine and features white and yellow stripe upholstery. The footstool is considered “neoclassical” in style meaning that the manufacturer hearkened back to the Greek aesthetic  when choosing the shape of the piece.  The neoclassical influence can be seen in the distinct x shaped legs and oval ornament found where the x crosses.

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Neoclassical Footstool, 1810-1820, mahogany/pine/metal/cloth, height 16.25in, length 18.5in, width 15.5in, New York State Historical Association Fenimore Art Museum, N0013.2008(01)a-b.

I began my investigation into the footstool by looking at the catalog record for the object in the New York State Historical Association’s (NYSHA) database. Acquired in 2008 the footstool is considered a relatively new acquisition for the collection.  The catalog record is rich in comparison to those for some other objects in the collection and provides a good object description, provenance, and date of manufacture. In the section on provenance the catalog record notes that the pair of footstools came out of a specific house in the village of Cooperstown and “have a history in the village.”  This small note piqued my interest. I suddenly wanted to know which house it came out of, who might have owned it, and why this object fit well into the house.

The catalog record said the footstools came out of the Campbell/Turner House. Nothing more.  At this point my investigation went to the New York State Historical Association’s Research Library.  I knew NYSHA had a collection known as the “Ward Files” that had photos, architectural surveys, and historic information on the houses and businesses in Cooperstown. Accessing the finding aid for this collection I found the exact house number and from there the correct two files about the house.  When I began to look at historic photos I got really excited; these footstools came from a specific place–a house I drive past every day!

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Campbell/Turner House, Florence Peaslee Ward Collection, New York State Historical Association, PH10.610

I did not recognize the house right away. In many of the historic photos the façade was much different than how I knew it today. The house used to have a porch, something that definitely changed the way the house looked.  The Ward File had an architectural survey that stated the house had been built in 1810 and the porch or “piazza” added in 1833. The survey cited Campbell and Ripley’s Daybook, a daily account written for a number of years by the original owner of the house–Robert Campbell. On July 22, 1833 Campbell noted in his daybook, “Isaac C. Crane agrees to build a Piazza, Tuscan order, with columns of quartered longs or of plank, with base and capitals, – at the price of $75.00 and laying the stone foundation.” This citation noted the exact day the owner decided to build the porch, considerations of the style–“Tuscan” with “columns”–and how much it would cost.

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Campbell and Ripley Daybook, NYSHA Research Library Special Collection, Volume I, Collection 100 page 65.

The Campbell/Turner house was originally built in 1808 in the distinctly boxy Federal style, but the added piazza with columns gives it a much more neoclassical feel.  It seems that Campbell was interested in the neoclassical or “Tuscan” style specifying the style in his daybook as he did. It is easy to imagine that if he was interested in the neoclassical look outside his home he might have also been interested in capturing this aesthetic inside. Perhaps this desire prompted him to buy the two footstools with curule legs.

Investigating the use of the footstools in the house led me to closely analyze the interior photos taken of the Campbell/Turner House parlor in 1935. I scoured the pictures hoping for a glimpse of my furniture, but alas there was no trace. The room did feature a neoclassical couch so perhaps the footstools in question were somewhere in the house!

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Florence Peaslee Ward Collection, New York State Historical Association Research Library. Interior of Campbell/Turner home parlor, 1935, PH-10.617. Exterior view from Campbell/Turner House hand colored, PH-10.618 .

Investigating this object led me to sources I did not know existed, namely daybooks and account books from the 1800s from people who lived right here in Cooperstown, NY.  What also struck me was the variety of sources available at the library that could illuminate something like a foot stool and offer a new way to glimpse the past.

-Mary Bryn Alexander, CGP 2014′

Images from the Fenimore Art Museum/New York State Historical Association and the Farmer’s Museum collection include fine art, folk art, photography, Native American Indian art,  and farm related objects. Images of objects in the collections are available for scholarly or commercial publication, personal reproduction or research. Photographic images must be requested through the Rights and Reproductions Department.

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