Last week I shared five “Made in Rochester” items on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. In the second half of this “Rochester tour” you’ll see five more, and a lovely historic object not currently on display with an important hometown connection. Let’s take a look:
1. Mr. Moulthrop’s marvelous movable chair
Moving up to the second floor (east), we enter “Many Voices, One Nation,” an exhibit on American immigration. In a display about how public schools helped new citizens assimilate, we see a mock-up of a classroom, circa 1905-1920, including an American flag, a picture of George Washington, a spelling book, and a wooden school desk. A label affixed to the desk says, “Moulthrop Langslow-Fowler Co, Rochester, NY”—and therein lies a tale.
The story begins with Col. Samuel Parker Moulthrop. Born in the Wisconsin territory in 1848, Moulthrop moved to Rochester in 1876 to teach, eventually becoming principal of Washington Grammar School No. 26. An education reformer, Moulthrop developed the idea that student desks should be movable to allow flexible use of classroom space. It’s hard for us today to imagine how revolutionary that idea was, but in the 19th century, almost all schools were furnished with iron-framed seats bolted to the floor in rows.
To manufacture what became known as the Moulthrop Movable School Chair, Moulthrop turned to the Langslow-Fowler Co., a Rochester-based furniture manufacturer and then one of the city’s biggest industries. From its six-story office building at 65 South Ave. and its enormous manufacturing plant—five stories and 100,000 square feet of floor space—at 216 Jay St., the company turned out all kinds of wood furniture: davenports, office chairs, rocking chairs, and dining room chairs among them.
In the early 1900s, Langslow-Fowler employed more than 450 people, including 12 traveling sales reps who covered the entire nation. (Given the company’s prominence, I’m not sure why we didn’t take to calling Rochester “the Fowler City.”)
But people needed convincing about the benefits of the new Moulthrop movable chair, so Langlor-Fowler issued pamphlets explaining how to use this new piece of furniture. “Why are children restless in school?” asked a 1909 pamphlet. “Principally because of the uncomfortableness of the seats and desks. The mental development of the child is conditioned by its physical well-being. Yet most of our children spend the years of their school lives in seats ill adapted to bodily comfort.” But the Moulthrop Movable School Chair promises “the emancipation of the pupil from the rigid iron framed school seat.”
In time, the Moulthrop Movable School Chair became an important element of education reform. (And we might consider adding Samuel Moultrop to the pantheon of Rochester free thinkers and reformers.)
On a personal level, what struck me on seeing this desk was that in the early decades of the 1900s, actual students sat in it—probably many dozens of students, none of whom are likely still living. But that’s where they sat—at that desk made in Rochester—and where they learned to read, to write in cursive, to absorb American history. Their futures, and the whole of the 20th century with all its marvels and horrors, lay before them. But sitting in that desk chair, they knew none of it.
“Art and Industry,” an exhibit on the museum’s third floor, features mass-produced objects of everyday life from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s, which are both “functional and visually pleasing.” These consumer products, notes the display, represent “the union of the artisan with the artist.” Not just one, but three Eastman Kodak cameras are displayed here—a testament to the artistry of Kodak designers. The display also includes electric mixers, toasters, razors, pocket watches, and other items, but let’s look at the three Rochester-made cameras:
2. Kodak Beau Brownie, 1930-1933
Launched in 1900, the Brownie was a long-running series of simple and inexpensive cameras, easy to hold and carry, and easy to use. It was the camera that introduced the snapshot to the masses. The Beau had a leatherette covering and measured just 5 by 5 by 3 1/4 inches.
3. Kodak Petite, 1935
The Kodak Petite was a palm-sized, folding camera designed for women. Offered in gray, blue green, rose, or lavender, it featured an exterior face with a geometric, two-toned Art Deco pattern. Part of the Kodak Coquette set, it came with a matching compact and lipstick in various color choices so that one might use it as an accessory to fashionable outfits. Folded, it measures just 5 inches by less than 3 inches, and less than 1 inch thick. I’ve seen these offered online for as much as $350.
4. Kodak Flash Bantam 4.5 camera, 1947
The post-World War II folding Bantam, at just 4.5 inches by 2 1/8 by 1 1/4 inches was among Kodak’s most compact offerings. This model came with brown leather case and detachable flash arm, flash, and cable assembly.
5. Stromberg-Carlson telephone
Also on the third floor, in an exhibit marking the centennial of World War I, is a display about Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Force. We see the actual desk Pershing sat behind at his headquarters in France, and on the desk is a telephone “of the type used by Pershing.” It’s a “candlestick” phone, consisting of a receiver (ear piece) connected by a brown cord to the stand and transmitter (mouthpiece). A silver nameplate affixed to the phone says, “Made by Stromberg-Carlson Telephone Mfg. Co., Rochester, NY.”
Candlestick phones were common from the late 1890s to the 1940s, and Stromberg-Carlson was one of the leading manufacturers. In 1894, when Alexander Graham Bell’s patent on the phone expired, two Chicago employees of the American Bell Telephone Co.—Alfred Stromberg and Androv Carlson—invested $500 a piece to start a firm to make equipment for independent phone companies. Their firm was later bought out by a New York company that relocated operations to Rochester. The company eventually branched out to manufacture TVs and to acquire radio and television stations, including WHAM radio and WROC-TV. In 1955, the firm was bought by General Dynamics, which divested the broadcast stations and later sold off the operations in several parts.
This is a temporary exhibit. Museum staff were not able to tell me how long these items—including the Rochester-made phone—will remain on display.
Bonus: The Anthony shawl
In researching this article, among the Rochester items I found in the museum’s collection is a shawl once owned by Susan B. Anthony. This object is not currently on display, but when I saw a photo of it—red silk with a decorative border and fringe—and learned how important it was to Anthony’s public image, I really wanted to see it.
Anthony wore the shawl to public meeting, rallies, speaking events, and when lobbying Congress. As a result, the red shawl—much like her alligator handbag—became an integral part of her public image. She died in 1906, and in 1919 the National American Woman Suffrage Association donated her shawl to the Smithsonian.
When I explained to museum staff how important Susan B. Anthony is to Rochester readers, they agreed to let me have a private look at the red shawl. I want to thank curator Lisa Kathleen Graddy for making this possible and for personally showing me the shawl.
As it turns out, the museum will mount an exhibit next year on women’s suffrage and it’s possible that the Anthony shawl will be part of it.
“It depends on space and conservation requirements,” Graddy says.
Graddy took me to a climate-controlled storeroom with storage units devoted to women’s history. In one, along with the Anthony shawl, is another shawl owned by Florence Nightingale, the social reformer and founder of modern nursing.
“It was a gift to her from Queen Victoria,” Graddy says.
She slowly pulled open the storage drawer, rolled back a white protective cover, and there it was: Susan B. Anthony’s red silk shawl—just like in the picture I’d seen.
In Rochester, I’ve toured the Susan B. Anthony Museum and House and seen her furniture and her books, but there was something about seeing this shawl, knowing she had worn it—many, many times—that struck me. And I was seeing it not behind glass in a display case but up close and direct—the way if I opened my own dresser drawer I’d see a shirt or sweater.
“Objects make history real,” Graddy says. “I’m an historian; I like good documents, but objects are the things that let you know someone made this, held it, wore it. Objects, especially clothing, make someone real.”
I was curious if this type of shawl tells us anything particular about Anthony.
“Well, it’s silk,” Graddy says. “It’s not wool, or knitted, or flannel. It’s a finer fabric not just for warmth. It’s not just a winter outdoor wrap; it reflects a middle-class income needed to have purchased it.”
And the fringe?
“Again, it didn’t need to be that way,” Graddy says. “It’s pretty with the fringe and decorative trim. We think of Anthony as plain, but this shawl has a flourish; it’s more than utilitarian.”
Seen close up, you also notice in the shawl several small stains.
“Over a lifetime of wear the shawl acquired its stains,” Graddy says. “Just general wear and tear.”
When we were done, Graddy rolled back the covering and gently closed the wide drawer, again consigning both Anthony’s and Florence Nightingale’s shawls to the protective environment of the bin marked “Suffrage.”
The 2020 exhibition Graddy and colleagues are planning will be about how the memory of the suffrage movement affects the modern women’s movement. Graddy doesn’t know yet if she’ll be able to display the Anthony shawl—it depends on how much light exposure the curatorial staff decides the object can safely take—but other Anthony items they do plan to display include a gavel, a silver tea kettle, a watch and cup and saucer Anthony bought for her mother with the first paycheck she received as a teacher, and a portrait of Anthony taken on her 80th birthday.
I do hope they display the shawl; I’d like to see it again.
I’ll end our museum tour with a question for Beacon readers to consider: What objects being made today by Rochester entrepreneurs and artists, or associated with Rochester reformers, will be on display in the National Museum of American History 100 years from today?
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].