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Group Photo, Everyone!

Photograph, "Employees of the Springfield Silk Mills Co." April 27, 1886; 2001.74.1

If your company asked everyone to get together for a group photo today, it’s unlikely you would be posing on the roof over the door, but some employees of the Springfield Silk Mills Company in Springfield, Mass., did just that on April 27, 1886. Group photos from this time period usually depicted employees lined up outside the company building, but sometimes employees were seen perched in the windows as they are here, or even standing on the roof or in an open delivery door. The Springfield Silk Mills seems to have been a small enterprise, housed in a two-story clapboard building that looks very much like a large house. The company employed both men and women, some of whom are sitting in the open windows on the second floor, while some of the men stand jauntily on the roof of the bay window on the first floor. Others of both sexes line up across the front of the building. While the crowd appears small, there are actually 53 people in the photo.

It’s unusual to have a photo dated so specifically as this one, and it provides a window into a company that did not exist for very long. The Springfield Silk Mills Company was incorporated in 1883, just three years before this photo was taken. The company made machine twist and sewing silk (machine twist is sewing thread especially for use in sewing machines). However, the company seems to have run into financial trouble by 1888 or so, and disappears from directories after 1889. It’s possible that the company was taken over and renamed, as the Mikado Silk Mills popped up in Springfield, Mass., in 1890, also making machine twist but Mikado was gone by 1892 as well. This photo, possibly taken at the height of the company’s business, may be all that’s left of the Springfield Silk Mills enterprise.

Jane Ward, Assistant Librarian

Students “Travel the Silk Road” at ATHM

On a recent spring morning, a school group from Second Nature Academy in Nashua, New Hampshire visited us for our “Travel the Silk Road” school program.  This program includes an introduction to silk (in which students get to touch and feel samples, as well as unreel a silk cocoon) and a Silk Road game designed by our Museum education staff.   A very inquisitive group, the children had an enthusiastic response and lots of questions upon arrival.  They were filled with wonder as they unreeled the cocoon.  Students then entered a classroom set up as the Silk Road, to begin the game.  The game works like a life-size board game, which is a map of the Silk Road.   They were divided into small groups called “caravans” which were friends they would travel with.  Each caravan received a cloth sack filled with representations of goods they would take on their travels; silk, spices, ivory, gold coins and food amphorae for survival.  Students were fascinated to discover the contents of their bags.  They pulled their gold tokens and goods out in awe.  They immediately began trying to determine their wealth.

They excitedly positioned themselves at various cities to begin the game.  A hand shot up as a student asked Paula Lochhead, our Museum educator teaching the program, if they could name their caravan.   “Yes of course you can, be creative.” Paula encouraged.  She then proceeded to explain to them that each city along the Silk Road has different values for its goods.  They looked again at their bags contents to get a precise sense of their caravan’s value.

Caravans began taking turns rolling hand-made over-sized dice.  They traveled spaces ahead as indicated by the dice.  The object of the game is to travel and increase your wealth by trading goods, while surviving the potentially brutal travel of the Silk Road desserts and rough terrain.  As they took their turns and read cards they found out how far they’d travel in a day and under what circumstances.  While waiting for their turns they sat in circles on the floor and planned their next move.

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“Heaven Save the Ladies”: An Embedded Exhibit at ATHM

On March 31st we opened an exhibit called “Heaven Save the Ladies: Textiles in Dickens’s America” without moving a single object. We are calling it an “embedded exhibit,” meaning that it is made up entirely of objects already on display in the core exhibit. With the generous help of a UMass Lowell student, we chose objects that relate to Charles Dickens’s life, work, and his 1842 visit to America. We created a laminated guide that visitors pick up at the front desk, and that explains the connections between each object and Charles Dickens.

Exhibit guides explain the connection between artifacts in ATHM's main exhibit and Charles Dickens.

“Heaven Save the Ladies” is part of the “Dickens in Lowell” celebration. From March 31 to October 20, 2012, cultural organizations throughout Lowell are hosting a wide variety of programs exploring many different aspects of Charles Dickens’s life, work, and especially his visit to America. You can find out more about “Dickens in Lowell” at

The idea of creating an exhibit within an exhibit also reveals one of the most fascinating aspects of displaying objects in a museum. Artifacts have many meanings and can be part of many different stories. The same object in a new setting can reveal new connections. “Heaven Save the Ladies” is a chance for a fresh perspective on many objects in the core exhibit. For example, in the core exhibit these stays illustrate the fashionable silhouette of the late colonial and early republic period of American dress, as well as the importance of British imports in America. In “Heaven Save the Ladies” the same stays are an opportunity to quote Dickens’s description of the Mrs. Rouncewell, the old-fashioned and proper housekeeper in Bleak House: “She is a fine old lady, handsome, stately, wonderfully neat, and has such a back, and such a stomacher, that if her stays should turn out when she dies to have been a broad old-fashioned family fire-grate, nobody who knows her would have cause to be surprised.” This quote opens up so many other ways to think about the meaning of the stays. For example, one can think about the connections between clothing, posture, social standing, and character.

This stay is one of the many objects re-interpretted in "Heaven Save the Ladies."

“Heaven Save the Ladies” is one of many possible ways of re-interpreting our exhibit. How else could we look at the exhibit? Please share your ideas with us…

By Dave Unger, Director of Interpretation

On the Watch in West Chelmsford, Mass.

When people think of textile mill employees, they often think specifically of the “mill girls” of the early to mid-19th century, who were employed in the weaving and spinning rooms of hundreds of textile factories. But men were employed in the mills as well, in supervisory capacities as well as in mechanical positions or in areas requiring much physical labor. One position that certainly all large businesses would include in their personnel, regardless of whether or not it was a textile mill, was that of the night watchman. And unlike most positions in a mill where you shared your workspace with dozens of others, this would be a more solitary job. Thanks to an unknown watchman working in West Chelmsford, Mass., we have a detailed idea of what his duties entailed and how he filled his time during work.

correspondence - watchman

(Letter) 1856 Apr. 7, West Chelmsford, Mass. : (to) G.W. Walton, Sargentville, Hancock Co., Maine; 0022.407 (detail)

On April 7, 1856, an unknown man wrote a letter to his friend, G.W. Walton in Sargentville, Hancock County, Maine, from an unidentified mill in West Chelmsford, Mass. Unfortunately the second half of the letter is missing, including the signature, so we have no idea who this man was, but it is clear that he is reasonably young and may have taken the job in order to have some time to study as he is thinking about teaching. (Sounds like your classic college-age job!)

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