Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Albert Sumner Wetherell III

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, May 22, 2015.

Exeter lost 19 men to the battlefield in World War II, among them was Albert Sumner Wetherell III. Like many young men in town, Wetherell enlisted in the army rather than wait to have his life upended with the draft. He served nearly three years before his death in the Ruhr at the very end of the war in Europe.

Wetherell’s family was well respected in town. His grandfather, Albert Wetherell Sr., hailed originally from South Norridgewock, Maine. After attending school in his hometown, he moved to Gloucester, Massachusetts to work in a drugstore for three years learning the art of compounding medicines. By 1873, he was ready to open his own business and initially set up shop in the Janvrin Block on Water Street. He opened his newly renovated drugstore in 1893 to great local excitement. The new store was “elegantly appointed” according to the Exeter News-Letter, and can still be seen today just opposite the bandstand, easily recognizable by the druggists’ mortar and pestle that stands on the roof. Local legend holds that the hot fudge sundae was invented at Wetherell’s drugstore at the soda fountain.

Albert Wetherell the druggist’s son, named for his father, went into the auto business opening a garage and sales office on Franklin Street. His advertisement from 1930, boasts of “Sales and Service: Buick, Marquette & Chevrolet Cars.” His son, also named Albert, but called Sumner – his middle name – was drawn to the exciting new world of automobiles, dropping out of Exeter High School to become a mechanic.

Sumner Wetherell took on leadership roles within the town. He became involved with the Boy Scouts of Troop 193, first becoming assistant and later Acting Scoutmaster, winning a blue ribbon for camping proficiency at the Stratham Hill Camporee in the fall of 1940. He expanded his role with the Exeter Fire Department, becoming a full member of the Hook and Ladder Company in May of 1940. By the time the war began, he had proved that he had leadership potential, but without full schooling, he was only able to enlist as a private in July of 1942.

But at some point during basic training at Fort Wheeler, Georgia, it became evident that he had the skills required of a leader. Sent to Officers Candidate School at Fort Hood, Texas, he graduated as a second lieutenant in a tank destroyer unit. Before shipping overseas, he stopped in Exeter long enough to have his picture taken with his sister, Elizabeth, then a member of the WAVES. Arriving in France, he trained with the infantry and became a platoon commander.

As the war wound down in early 1945, his father must have begun to get excited that his son would soon come home. But it was not to be. During the final push into Germany, 2nd Lt. Albert Sumner Wetherell was reported missing in action. His father received word on Saturday, April 21, and worried until receiving the news he didn’t want to hear the following Monday that his only son was confirmed killed in action on April 5 – just a month before the war’s end in Europe. The Exeter News-Letter picked up the story and reported on April 26, “his death brings to 14 the number of Exeter service men who have given their lives in the war.” It would not be the last.

Wetherell’s family inscribed his name on the family gravestone in the Exeter Cemetery, sadly under that of his mother, Hazel, who died in 1925 after childbirth when Sumner was just a boy, and his baby brother who died a year later of scarlet fever.

Far away, in the American War Cemetery in Margraten, Netherlands, 2nd Lieutenant Albert Sumner Wetherell III was laid to rest. But his story doesn’t end here and he was not forgotten in a lonely cemetery. Many years ago, his grave was adopted by John Essers – who is now 68. This spring he wrote to the Exeter Historical Society requesting information about the man he never knew. “Six times in a year I bring flowers to his grave and so I do remember him for what he has done for us in World War II. Every time, when I stand on his grave, I think also what for man he has been and if he has still family in the USA.” Margraten has not forgotten the Americans buried in their town. This year they began an ambitious project to collect photos and information on the 10,023 soldiers who lie in the cemetery. “In this way,” their website states, “Dutch citizens will give a face to their U.S. liberators as a unique tribute to their sacrifices.” Albert Wetherell’s photo, taken with his sister Elizabeth, was forwarded for this project. (You can read more about the project on their website.)

Exeter’s World War II service men who died during the war – Millard Blaisdell, Hector Bruneau, Joseph Chatigny, Jr., Robert Connor, Maurice Couture, Rene Desroisiers, James Dirsa Jr., Joseph Hammell, Christian Hansen, Albert Horsfall, Herbert Moss, Robert Naves, Raynold Nudd, John Pearson, Forrest Shaw, Raymond Tuttle, Alfred Wightman, Cornelius Wilson and Albert S. Wetherell III (known as ‘Sumner’) – are all well remembered in Exeter. We can take comfort in knowing that they are well remembered overseas as well.

Photo: 2nd Lieutenant Albert Sumner Wetherell III and his sister, Elizabeth Wetherell of the WAVES pose together just before Sumner shipped overseas during World War II. Sumner was killed in action in the Ruhr region of German on April 5, 1945.

Also: John M.G. Essers, who adopted the grave of Albert Sumner Wetherell, poses at the gravesite in Margarten, Netherlands on April 5, 2015 – exactly 50 years after Wetherell fell on the battlefield.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Exeter Samplers

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Tuesday, May 12, 2015.

The Exeter Historical Society was recently asked by the Saco Museum in Maine if there were any examples of New England samplers in the collections and if we’d be willing to loan them for a summer exhibition called, “Industry and Virtue Joined: Schoolgirl Needlework and Female Entrepreneurs of Northern New England.” Our samplers would be displayed at the museum and later photographed and included in the Sampler Archive Project, a collaboration of the University of Delaware, the University of Oregon and the Sampler Consortium funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Five of our samplers have been included in this project.

The oldest sampler in our collection is also the one we know the least about. It was donated to the Society in 1979 from the estate of Margaret Graney, an Exeter native who worked in Boston as a legal secretary most of her life. The sampler is the work of Fanny Hallett, who embroidered the date ‘1793’ onto the piece but provided no other information. Like all the samplers in our collections, the work is done with silk thread on linen fabric. Samplers were meant to highlight a girl’s ability to sew and decorate – an important skill for women to possess. The sampler was like a term paper – proving that a girl had mastered the stitches. Generally, samplers include renderings of the alphabet, printed capitals and lower case along with fancy script as well as text. In most cases, the text is religious in nature, but Fanny Hallett instead used a quote from the British poet Alexander Pope’s work Essay on Man: “Honour and shame from no condition rise, Act well your part there all the honor lies.” Was this a subtle comment on the nation’s new republican ideals? Perhaps. We know very little about Fanny Hallett. There were no families named ‘Hallett’ living in Exeter or the surrounding area in 1793, so the sampler must be from some other location originally.

Two samplers that we can document well are those of Harriet Robinson and Martha Jane Elliot. Harriet stitched her name and, “aged 11 years Exeter 1839” onto her sampler. Martha Jane likewise included her name followed by, “age 12 years, Exeter, 1842” on her work. At the time they created the samplers, both girls were attending the Exeter Female Academy on Center Street. It is likely that it was at this school that the samplers were created. Along with the academic subjects taught at the school was a class in needlework. Both samplers follow the same basic structure: within an embroidered border, there are three lines of the alphabet (print, script, lower case) followed by a popular poem, “Pray Always” by Jane Simpson, which begins, “Go when the morning shineth, Go when the noon is bright.” Harriet called it simply, “Pray” and Martha titled it, “The Hour of Prayer,” but it is the exact same poem.

Interestingly, Harriet and Martha became in-laws by marrying the Merrill brothers, Abner and Henry. Both couples spent their adult lives in Boston, although they visited Exeter often.

Another sampler in our collections is that of Mary Shute. Like the Fanny Hallett sampler, Shute’s was also donated by the Margaret Graney estate. There were numerous Shute families in Exeter, but none of them had a daughter named Mary. The sampler provides no clues, merely listing the maker as: “Mary Shute, aged nine yrs.” As such, we cannot even be assured the work was done in Exeter. The style of the piece is different from those done at the Exeter Female Academy and a check of the student lists from the school yields no “Mary Shute.” However, there is a student named “Elizabeth Mary Shute” who attended in the early 1830s. It is possible – but not provable – that this is the same person. Elizabeth Mary Shute was born in 1825 and attended the Exeter Female Academy along with her sister, Emeline. Elizabeth’s obituary from 1901 says of her, “As a child of tender years, Miss Shute sustained an injury which resulted in partial paralysis of her lower limbs.” She never married, choosing instead to live with her sister, Emeline, who married another of the Merrill brothers, Joseph. As tantalizing as this is, of course, we simply can’t be sure.

The final sampler in the collection is quite similar to the two that were made at the Exeter Female Academy and the maker’s name is carefully stitched into it: “Sarah Jane Elliot, age 12, Exeter.” We presumed it would be simple to locate the maker and establish her family in town, but she remains elusive. Not related to Martha Jane Elliot, Sarah Jane could be one of two people – both born in 1844 (making this the youngest of the samplers, created about 1856). But we cannot place Sarah Jane Elliot, born 1844 to either James and Abigail Elliot of Chester or Ephraim and Sarah Elliot of Concord, in Exeter in 1856. She is also not listed in the catalog of the Exeter Female Academy. Sarah did not use Jane Simpson’s poem about prayer in her sampler, she used a common sampler verse, “Jesus permit thy gracious name, to stand as the first effort of an infant’s hand, and as her fingers on the sampler move, engage her tender heart to seek thy love with thy dear children may she have a part and write thy name thyself upon her heart.” Authorship of this verse is disputed. It may have been John Newton, of “Amazing Grace” fame, or Isaac Watts. But no matter whose verse it was, the sampler remains that the only evidence we have of Sarah Jane Elliot in Exeter.

The Exeter samplers will be on display at the Saco Museum from May 9th through October 4th. Further information and hours are listed at:

Photo: Sampler made by Martha Jane Elliot of Exeter in 1842. Elliot likely stitched her work as a student at the Exeter Female Academy, a private girl’s finishing school that was located on Center Street from 1826 – 1864. This sampler, and four others from the collections of the Exeter Historical Society, will be on display this summer at the Saco Museum in Saco, Maine.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Exeter Canning Company

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, April 24, 2015.

Photo courtesy of Peter A. Smith
At the opening of the twentieth century, marketing of canned goods took off. Much of the credit for this goes to improvements in the safety of canned foods. In 1915, Exeter became the home to this industry with the creation of the Exeter Canning Company – a wholesale food packing factory located on a triangle of land behind Salem Street. Today, if you check Google Earth, there is no trace of this company, not even the outline of its buildings.

Preserving food to last between growing seasons has always been a challenge. Salting, smoking, pickling and preserving were the only options people had until the early 1800s when rudimentary canning was developed to help ship food to Napoleon’s army. Heavy metal cans with crudely soldered lids were packed tight with meats. If the can didn’t swell (a sure sign of decomposition) then the food was deemed safe to eat. These early canned goods had the added benefit of lead soldering, so if the food wasn’t outright rotten, the seal provided a low level of lead poisoning. Needless to say, outside of the military canned foods didn’t catch on. Home canning in lidded glass jars flourished to some degree, but spoilage continued to be a problem.

Beef hastily supplied for use during the Spanish American War of 1898 was so poorly packed that it came to be known as ‘embalmed beef’ by the army. With illnesses on the rise, the scandal of adulterated canned goods dominated the news and lead to the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in 1906. Combined with the growing awareness of the germ theory, food preservation took a great leap forward as sanitary factory conditions began to be seen as marketable.

James H. Ingersoll, according to the Exeter News-Letter, a “pioneer in the canned goods industry,” arrived in town in 1915, eager to build a sanitary canning factory. Perhaps to bolster the new business, the Exeter News-Letter ran a short article extolling the virtues of the tin can. “The tin can is the emblem of civilization. Its absence defines the savage; its use sets apart from barbarians the modern, forehanded, sanitary man. It is civilization’s defense against the leanness of lean years and against the attacks of carnivorous germs. It has been improved in the last 10 years; the top and bottom are no longer soldered on, they are crimped on, so that no corrosion can result from acid contents. Cans are now sealed in a vacuum, so that no bacterial change can be set up within. And machinery for making cans and the machinery for filling and sealing them have been perfected until the process in each case is now a continuous process, and the process wholly mechanical, in which the workmen share with their hands only to pull levers and adjust apparatus.” So clean, so sanitary.

Exeter had a number of advantages for the new business, including close proximity to the Boston & Maine railroad and access to local farmers. At this time, the town and surrounding area was still quite rural, although Ingersoll may have underestimated the output of local farmers. Rather than producing large volumes of one crop, most local farmers mixed their agricultural output. In this manner, if one crop failed there were others to fill in the loss. The largest local crop was hay – easy to grow, but not much good for canning. Still, Ingersoll was optimistic. He shipped wholesale in big number 10 cans to markets in Boston, Providence, Springfield and other New England cities.

Ingersoll focused on only a few products: corn, string beans, apples and baked beans. Of these, all could be obtained locally. He offered premiums to local farmers, including seed corn for the next season. Farmers were generally pleased to have such a ready market for their goods. Ingersoll’s advertisement in November of 1915 pledged, “we shall take no apples or string beans of anyone except from those who plant corn for us, giving our patrons the chance to dispose of their other canning products before taking from others who do not plant corn.” It was a pretty good deal for the farmers. Ingersoll awarded prizes to his best producers. W. Leslie Dining of Stratham won $25.00 in 1917 for the best acre.

The factory ran at full volume in the summer and fall when produce was abundant – sometimes almost too abundant – and winter and spring were busy packing baked beans. The seasonal nature of the business sometimes made it difficult to find workers. In October of 1918, when men were away fighting in World War I and influenza was felling many workers, Ingersoll desperately advertised, “WANTED: 30 to 50 Women – good wages! Steady work!” Priscilla Williams Johnson, a student in the Normal School division of the Robinson Female Seminary, went to work at the factory during the flu outbreak when the schools were closes. She later remembered to Nancy Merrill that the pay was good. She didn’t, however, stay with factory work. Johnson went on to become a long-time teacher in Exeter.

Ingersoll’s factory flourished for seventeen years. In 1927, it was abruptly announced that a sheriff’s auction would be held to disperse the holdings of the company in March. James Ingersoll died in November at the age of 76, so he didn’t linger into retirement. His obituary was complimentary, “president of J.H. Ingersoll & Company, Exeter, which until reverses did a business of considerable proportions.” Considerable indeed, his business met the needs of the time and helped advance the sanitary standards we all take a bit for granted today.

Photo: Canned goods became popular in the early part of the 20th century – as evidenced in this photo c. 1903 in an Exeter grocery store. (Photo courtesy of Peter A. Smith.)

Sunday, April 12, 2015

The Death of President Abraham Lincoln – Exeter Reacts

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, April 10, 2015.

No United States president had been murdered before. Two presidents had died in office, William Henry Harrison and Zachary Taylor, but in each case there had first come word of illness and people knew that even minor illness could result in death. Abraham Lincoln’s assassination was startling because of its suddenness. Even the long years of war with weekly announcements of battlefield deaths did little to prepare people for the violent actions of John Wilkes Booth.

Probably the first Exeter citizen to hear the news was Gilman Marston. Marston was a well-respected lawyer in Exeter at the outbreak of the war. Dabbling in politics, he’d served two terms as a congressman when the war broke out. Quickly signing on with the New Hampshire 2nd regiment, he’d risen to the rank of brigadier general. Wounded frequently, in 1865 he returned to politics and had just taken the congressional oath for a third time. At age 53, he was back in Washington preparing to ease out of the army and take up government work again. His diaries, which reside in the archives of the Exeter Historical Society, are notable not only for their brevity but for his nearly indecipherable handwriting. On the fateful evening of April 14th, Marston writes: “About 10:30 pm while standing in front of the National, a young man passing by (said) the president was shot in theatre. Called up R and went to the house where the President had been carried – there heard of the assault on Seward – went to his house – returned to the President.”

How long he lingered outside the Petersen house is unknown, but at some point he returned to his rooms at the National Hotel. He learned of the President’s death the next morning, jotting in his diary, “Heard at breakfast that the President died at 7:22 this morning. Vice President Johnson took a oath prescribed for a President.”

Word reached Exeter quickly. Hannah Brown, a 62 year old seamstress living on River Street, was shattered when she heard the news. Her diary entry reflects the suddenness of the news. “This day sad and awful news came over the wires to us that last evening an assassin by the name of Booth went in to the theatre at Washington and shot our President Abraham Lincoln. What a shock it gave us all what horrible thing it is to think of!”

By the time the weekly Exeter News-Letter was published on Monday, April 17th, there was no one in town who hadn’t heard the news. The paper is a mish-mash of jubilant news of the surrender of Richmond followed by Lincoln’s triumphant visit to the rebel city and the deep sorrow at his subsequent death. The account also reminds us that Booth was not a lone assassin and the plot had included planned attacks on the Vice President, who was unharmed, and Secretary of State William Seward, who would barely survive a vicious knife attack by Lewis Powell. “Had the President only been murdered,” wrote the News-Letter, “we might have supposed it the work of some insane or intoxicated wrench, but the murderous assault on Mr. Seward, and the preparations of escape, tell us that deed is the result of a conspiracy against the chief men of the country.”

Harold Blake, a 13 year old from Kensington, was working as a Western Union messenger boy in Washington, DC when the President was killed. Fifty years later, his memory of the night appears confused. He writes that he and his father were to attend Ford’s Theatre that evening, but late streetcars made them miss the beginning of the show and they attended a performance of “Moll Pitcher” at Grover’s Theatre instead. He remembered nothing of the turmoil of that night, believing that the play he saw must have ended before the assassination occurred. But he wasn’t at Grover’s on April 14th. Tad Lincoln was there, watching a performance of “Aladdin! or His Wonderful Lamp” when news reached the audience that the President had been shot. Blake must have confused the night and the play with another time. He did, however, recall how he and his father heard of the President’s death. “It was not until next morning when Orderly Eaton and I, riding to the city, saw bunting being removed from private and public buildings, and being replaced with crepe and the flags half-masted. The appalling story of the tragedy of the night before was being told in voices subdued and broken. Few dry eyes were there that day.”

Far away in Paris, 22 year old Edward Tuck had just been appointed as a consular pupil at the U.S. Consulate. His days were spent buried in clerical work, but he kept abreast of the news of the war as best he could. Several years earlier, an attempt to lay a trans-Atlantic telegraph cable had failed, so in April of 1865 it still took 11 days for news to arrive from the States. He would write to his father, on April 28th, “The horrible news first reached Paris on Tuesday afternoon. It was brought to the Consulate from the Bourse (the Paris stock exchange), but I disbelieved it as the Bourse dispatches have nearly always proved false. In the evening private dispatches from England confirmed it. The agitation was immense. Americans wrung their hands and even cried, in some cases, like children.” The Tuck family was well acquainted with the Lincolns, so his grief must have been acute. His words to his father reflect the nation’s attempt to make sense of a senseless act. “The death of no man in the world could have produced so melancholy an effect. His martyrdom casts the last and greatest dishonor on the southern cause…In the great grief which every American feels, as for a near relative, it is comforting to think his death has purchased for himself a place by the side of Washington, and for his country and his country’s cause a sympathy that only result in good.”

Photo: Gilman Marston, Brigadier General and congressman, was most likely the first Exeter citizen to hear of the death of President Lincoln. Upon hearing the news he rushed to the scene before the President’s condition was announced to be fatal. Confirmation came the next morning.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

The Messenger Boy

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 27, 2015.

In the collections of the Exeter Historical Society is a photo labeled, “the only messenger boy in town!” In the picture, there is a young boy of maybe 12 or 13 standing gravely next to his bike on Water Street looking straight at the camera. We don’t know his name or much about the photo album which contains the picture. Most of the pictures involve the printing office of the Exeter Gazette and the railroad post office. Even the caption provides us with no hint – is there only one messenger boy in town, or is this the only reliable boy to call?

Messenger boys, or telegram boys as they were sometimes called, worked long hours. It was their job to ferry messages to and from the telegraph office at the railroad depot. Telegraphy, utilizing Morse code, had followed the development of the railroad in the 1840s. Both the trains and the electric telegraph wires needed straight paths to travel, and the railroads had to have fast and dependable communication to coordinate traffic on the rails. By the time of the Civil War, the telegraph office had become the information superhighway. It was the quickest way to get information across the country. Getting the information from the telegraph office to the newspaper offices, however, still required racing across town.

In large cities, Western Union – which became a telegraph monopoly by the late nineteenth century – regularly hired boys between the ages of 11 and 18 to run messages to customers. The job was frequently paid by the mile, so once bicycles became common in the 1890s, Western Union was one of their biggest customers. Boys paid a rental fee for the bike and another fee for their uniform. Often making a mere two cents per message, he could earn up to two dollars per week – not bad if he was living at home, but most city messenger boys lived in flop houses and wiled away their off hours reading penny dreadfuls and smoking unsavory cigarettes. Because of their poor habits, larger Western Union offices kept the boys well away from the public – often hiding them in a back room or basement. 

Social reformers worried endlessly about messenger boys, while at the same time popular novels and stories hailed them as hard-working, self-employed, up and coming young businessmen. Horatio Alger Jr.’s rags to riches stories, such as Number 91: Tales of a New York Telegraph Boy gave these youngsters almost hero status. The image of a messenger boy on his bicycle became ubiquitous in the film industry. Receiving a telegraph carried thoughts of something unexpected happening – a birth, death or big announcement – and the messenger himself carried some importance.

But let’s not forget these were boys – often young boys – working long days. In Exeter, there were no big Western Union offices that offered the occasional meal and at least minimal schooling. By the turn of the century, children were required to be in school until reaching the age of 14, but the local telegraph office probably didn’t ask too many questions if a boy was on the tall side and willing to work. The boy in our picture has most likely provided his own bicycle – but unlike the city kids, he probably went home for meals and sleep. His down time was likely long and dull, similar to the pace of life in Exeter.

As telephones became popular in the 1920s, it would seem that the telegram and telegraph boys would have disappeared from the landscape, but the telephone was primarily for local use, communication from farther away still required the speed of the telegraph. In his book, Telegraph Messenger Boys: Labor, Technology and Geography, 1850-1950, Gregory Downey notes: “Messenger employment peaked around 1930 and began to drop off after World War II. With the increasing demand for the telegraph in the Roaring Twenties, the messenger’s employers managed to transform him into the much-advertised image of the smiling, uniformed, industrial soldier, ready to not only deliver a holiday telegram with a smile, but competent to carry out product surveys, to deliver direct-marketing samples and even to cover the office phones while the boss was away. And soon after World War II ended, a century after the first telegraph messenger appeared, finding any messenger image at all – save for a nostalgic one – was all but impossible.”

It was probably for the best. Boys at that age should be in school and not gallivanting recklessly around town on a bicycle. Our winsome little fellow would have been forgotten had it not been for someone – perhaps an employee of the Exeter Gazette – grateful enough of his quick delivery of news from the depot, who snapped his picture on dusty old Water Street one day.

Photo: An unknown messenger boy poses sometime in the 1890s on Water Street in Exeter. The Folsom Tavern can be seen behind him in its original location on the corner of Water and Front Street.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

What Color Should an Old House Be?

by Barbara Rimkunas

This "Historically Speaking" column was published in the Exeter News-Letter on Friday, March 13, 2015.

The Ladd-Gilman House, c. 1860
In 1876, Charles Bell described for the Ladies Centennial Levee the appearance of the town of Exeter in 1776. “The character of the buildings was generally inferior. To be sure the best of them were spacious, handsome and constructed from the choicest materials, as a few surviving specimens still attest; but probably the major part of them must have been comparatively small and poor. Unpainted houses were the rule then; they are the exceptions now.” When purchasing an old house – or attempting to make a new house blend in to an old neighborhood – the question of paint color is often raised. Our collective vision of New England’s old neighborhoods yields street after street of tidy houses painted in ‘New England Up-Tight White,’ but is this what the town actually looked like back in colonial days? Probably not, but it most likely looked like that one hundred years later.

It is possible to do a paint analysis to determine the original color. This can be time consuming and expensive. Not to mention that, as Charles Bell pointed out, it was uncommon for most colonial buildings to be painted. Even by the early 1800s, unpainted buildings seem to have been the rule in town. Elizabeth Dow Leonard mentions, in her reminiscence of childhood in Exeter during this time period, the Second Parish Church – which one might think was a rather prominent building – was, “guiltless of trees or any other ornamentation, two stories in height and unpainted.” Her own family house, described by her as “the old mansion,” was painted white. Other buildings in town, if the color is mentioned at all, are usually described as red. Dr. William Perry mentions several houses in his memoir of the 1830s: “the house was old and much faded as I recollect it, and painted originally red,” “on the next lot was an old two-storied house, originally painted red, but much faded.” A few others where white, but red or unpainted seems to be the most common colors mentioned for houses in town.

The Exeter Historic District Commission offers some advice on appropriate colors for old houses. These can be found on their website. The colors correspond with age of the house – old houses have fewer options: red, white, various shades of yellow. James Garvin, long the state architectural historian, gives us some insight into these choices in his A Building History of Northern New England, “When painted, houses were often covered with inexpensive yellow and red paints made by mixing dry, pulverized earth colors with linseed oils. Such buildings sometimes had their exterior trim picked out in white lead paint. Not infrequently, the facades of houses were wholly painted in white lead, but the sides and backs were covered with cheaper red or yellow. In other cases, rare enough in the eighteenth century to excite comment, houses were entirely painted in expensive white lead, either pure or tinted by the addition of colored pigments.” All of these choices were fairly durable over time, but white painted had the unfortunate downside of being toxic to the apprentices and painters who worked with it.

If white paint was expensive and uncommon, why do we associate it with traditional New England? The answer to that takes us back to the centennial Charles Bell participated in and a period of faddish delight that followed known as the ‘colonial revival.’ At the time of the nation’s centennial a wave of nostalgia swept across the country and white became the popular color for anything perceived as colonial. Oddly, there was also a great deal of snobbishness associated with all things British, and it became de rigueur to connect with one’s English roots. One popular urban legend – still promoted by many localities today – was that of the ‘Tory chimney.’

A Tory chimney was one that was painted white with a band of black at the very top. The legend usually suggests that locals who were loyal to the crown would have their chimneys painted in this fashion to alert the invading British and avoid having their house destroyed. There is no evidence for this in practice and if you think about it, alerting the British would also alert all your angry patriot neighbors, so it wouldn’t be a particularly great idea. Garvin is unconvinced on the practice, commenting, “the spurious nature of this legend is clear when we reflect on the inaccuracy of eighteenth-century bombardment and the impossibility of targeting or sparing individual buildings. The result of naval bombardment during the Revolution was usually a conflagration that consumed the entire town, as at Falmouth.” So forget about that old chestnut and accept that black-banded white chimneys are simply pretty.

So, before you pick up all that white paint for your old house, keep in mind that there are a few other options. Garvin would encourage the use of the earthier tones, “earth colors offer a limited palette of rather dull but pleasant hues. Mixed with a white metallic pigment, these same colors produce a wide range of hues that are highly appropriate for older houses.” Exeter’s Heritage Commission will be hosting a program on historic house painting this spring at the Exeter Historical Society to provide more guidance – notice of the event will be forthcoming.

Image: The Ladd-Gilman house in Exeter, now the home of the American Independence Museum, seen in a stereo view taken by William Hobbs about 1860. Although it is difficult to determine the color of the house, it is clearly not white. White paint was expensive and even a building as important as this – the state treasury during the Revolution – was often painted in earth tones or not painted at all.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Our latest Exeter History Minute - Daylight Saving Time

Are you a fan of springing forward and falling back? Or are you apt to grumble to a co-worker or neighbor about the time change for a day or two? Have you ever wondered how this odd practice began? In this episode - click here to watch - Barbara looks at the history of Daylight Saving Time, from Benjamin Franklin to the Uniform Time Act of 1966. This history minute is generously sponsored by Stratham-Newfields Veterinary Hospital. (And special thanks to Chester Battarbee for playing the role of the trusty canine.)

To learn more about Exeter history -- or to support the Exeter Historical Society -- visit our website, #ExeterHistoryMinute