“Made in Rochester” is a phrase we like to see, especially in a prominent place. So, it’s been with hometown pride that I’ve explored one of the nation’s most renowned museums, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., and found items there—often beautiful and important items—that all say “Made in Rochester.” I’ll show you the items I found and share their stories, and if you make the trip to D.C. you can see them, too, because they’re all currently on display.
But first a little background: The American History Museum is just one of 17 Smithsonian museums and galleries in D.C. Many items associated with Rochester are among the collections of the other Smithsonian facilities. Writings and photographs of Frederick Douglass, for example, are mostly found at the National Museum of African American History & Culture; wood furniture by Wendell Castle is at the American Art Museum.
But it’s the American History Museum—whose broad mission is to collect, care for, and study objects that reflect the experience of the American people—that, with 1.8 million objects, is the largest history museum of any kind in the United States. Its collection includes everything from the original Star-Spangled Banner and Abraham Lincoln’s top hat to Dizzy Gillespie’s angled trumpet and Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz.” More than 4 million people visit annually.
It’s not surprising, of course, that items from Rochester should be there: For a very long time we’ve been creating, making, and sharing things with the rest of the country and so, of course, should be well-represented in the nation’s premier history museum.
For this Rochester tour of the American History Museum I wanted to include only items that you can actually see—that are currently on display. That turned out to require some serious sleuthing because only a tiny fraction, maybe 2 percent, of the museum’s collection is displayed at any one time. The rest is held in storage. For their aid (and patience) in helping me find “Made in Rochester” items currently on display, I thank the museum’s communications and curatorial staff.
But what treasures we found! And in the process I learned things about my hometown that I hadn’t previously known: that we have a connection to the sinking of the Titanic; that we were home to prized potteries as well as quack medicines; and that a great advance in education reform was made by a Rochester teacher whose name we hardly know, but should.
In total, I found 10 Rochester objects currently on display, including a children’s play space that you’ll see has a special connection to our city. Also, at my request, I was allowed to see another particularly lovely and historic object with an important hometown connection that is not currently on display, but may soon be. You’ll have to scroll to the bottom to see what it is.
So let’s have a look. Each of the museum’s floors are divided into “east” and “west” wings. We’ll start on the first floor east.
- Bernice Palmer’s Kodak Brownie camera
In an exhibit about transportation in the United States from 1870 to the present called “America on the Move,” a Kodak camera sits on a shelf in the same display case as a life vest from the Titanic. What’s the connection?
Here’s the story as the museum describes it: Sometime around her 17th birthday, young Bernice Palmer of Canada received a Kodak Brownie box camera, either for Christmas 1911 or for her birthday in January 1912. A few months later, she and her mother boarded the Cunard ocean liner Carpathia in New York City for a Mediterranean cruise. Carpathia had just left New York when on April 14 it received a distress call from the White Star liner Titanic. It raced to the scene and managed to rescue over 700 survivors from the icy North Atlantic. With her new camera, Bernice took pictures of the iceberg that sliced open the Titanic’s hull and also snapshots of Titanic survivors.
Lacking enough food to feed both the paying passengers and Titanic survivors, the Carpathia turned around and headed back to New York. There, unaware of the high value of her pictures, Bernice sold publication rights to a photographic agency for just $10. More than 70 years later, in 1986, Bernice donated her Kodak camera to the Smithsonian. As I look at that camera, I marvel to think that a young woman, looking through that viewfinder, saw actual Titanic survivors as well as the iceberg that sunk the ship.
2. Stoneware butter crock
It’s nice to see Rochester prominently written on an object that is not only historic, but also beautiful. Further on in the “American on the Move” exhibit is a section about “Inland Waterways,” including the Erie Canal.
The museum explains: “Canal boats needed jars, jugs, crocks, and pots for the food, drink, and other perishable cargo they carried. Almost overnight, potteries sprang up in canal towns to turn out practical stoneware. Each piece was made distinctive by its glaze, decoration, and shape and proudly stamped with the name and city of the potter.”
And it’s here we find a lovely salt-glazed stoneware butter crock (to store butter at room temperature) made around 1860 by Rochester potter John Burger. (It’s hard to tell from the picture the size of the crock, but it’s large—nearly the size of a soccer ball.)
Burger’s pottery on Mt. Hope Ave. was widely admired for making some of the most masterfully decorated pieces of American stoneware. The business remained active, even after Burger’s death, until the retirement of his son, John Burger, Jr., in 1890. (For more on Burger pottery, see burgerpottery.wordpress.com.)
Rochester-made Burger pottery continues to be highly desired among collectors. I checked some online auction sites: Butter crocks like this one, as well as water jugs and other items, are valued in the hundreds of dollars.
3. Otto’s Cure
Over on first floor west, an exhibit called “American Enterprise” tracks the growth of advertising. Among early buyers of advertising, we learn, were makers of so-called “patent” medicines. (In fact, most 19th century medicines were trademarked but not patented.) Made of secret ingredients—typically vegetable extracts and alcohol—they were sold with bogus claims of curing a multitude of ailments.
On the top shelf of a display of such heavily advertised “medicines” are “female bitters,” bottles of cod liver oil, and then “Otto’s Cure”—“prepared by B. H. Bacon Co., Rochester, N.Y.”
Advertised as the “German Remedy for Throat and Lung Diseases,” the rear of the box claims a cure for asthma, bronchitis, croup, and whooping cough, among other ailments.
B. H. Bacon made bottled medicines beginning in 1895, first in Leroy, then in Rochester. One source puts the company’s address in Rochester at 187 West Ave. Historians note that following Bacon’s death, subsequent owners changed the name “Otto’s Cure” to “Otto’s Remedy,” possibly to avoid violations of the new Pure Food and Drug Act, effective in 1907.
The original Cure sold for 25 cents a bottle, but I see that on eBay an empty bottle—six inches tall, aqua-colored, and embossed with “Rochester, N.Y.” —is offered today for $30.
4. Union ID badge
The labor movement, explains the first floor west exhibit, “Consumer Era (1940-1970),” played a key role in helping produce the growing number of goods desired by American consumers.
One display highlights the 1955 merger of the AFL and CIO, two of America’s leading unions. What’s the Rochester connection? At the historic first AFL-CIO convention in New York City, delegate ID badges, like the one shown here for William A. Gillen, past president of the Insurance Workers International Union, were made by Bastian Brothers of Rochester.
Founded as a jewelry store in 1895 by brothers Theron and Frederick Bastian, the business soon began producing customized badges, paperweights, lapel pins, and award products, eventually becoming a leading national supplier of such items. The last surviving of the brothers, Frederick Bastian of Brighton, died at Highland Hospital in 1960. A successor company with the same name operates today from a facility in Phelps.
5. Wegmans Wonderplace
OK, so this is not an historical artifact, but it sure is “made in Rochester.” A play and learning area inside the museum for children up to age six, Wegmans Wonderplace was made possible by a $1.5 million gift from Wegmans Food Markets, a generous way for the company to help usher in its own 100th anniversary in 2016.
The first floor west space includes 1,700 square feet of hands-on, play-based activity areas. They allow kids to “cook” in a kitchen inspired by Julia Child’s own kitchen; plant and harvest pretend vegetables and run a farm stand; find owls hiding in a miniature replica of the Smithsonian’s Castle building; and captain a tugboat (named the S.S. Danny) based on an actual model in the museum’s collection.
Real artifacts from the museum are also displayed, such as early American spoons, milk bottles, farm toys, and lunch boxes (including a “Lassie” lunchbox dated 1962 that I’m pretty sure I carried in second grade.)
Museum staff tell me that 250 to 1,100 children visit Wegmans Wonderplace each day.
At the opening ceremonies in 2015—attended by Rep. Louise Slaughter—Smithsonian Secretary David Skorton oversaw the cutting of a paper-chain ribbon and Danny Wegman addressed a crowd of hundreds of children and their parents.
“This is a great day,” Wegman said. “You’re going to find an organic farm in here and I know that you’re going to realize that that’s going to turn into great food. And we’ve got a fishing boat inside there. It’s called the S.S. Danny! Not sure how it got that name, but I hope it stays afloat!”
If Wonderland stays afloat the way Wegmans has, I’ll bet this made-in-Rochester play space on the National Mall remains popular for a very long time.
This is the first half of a two-part article. Next: Five more items made in Rochester and displayed in D.C.—and a special item not on display.
Peter Lovenheim, journalist and author, is Washington Correspondent for the Rochester Beacon. You can reach Peter with comments or suggestions for his “Letter from Washington” at [email protected].