In early America, certain sorts of “pigs”—made of iron—did indeed fly: off colonial docks to far-flung markets. Every object made out of iron or steel—from a cell phone to a chandelier to a car, from a building to a branding iron—began its journey as a humble beginnings as a piece of iron ore. Although our 18th- and early 19th-century American ancestors used iron-made objects for their functionality, many were also works of art. It’s these pieces that will finally get their due respect in a new exhibition at the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum; From Forge and Furnace: A Celebration of Early American Iron will open on November 24, 2016 and will remain on view indefinitely.
From the lightest tinplated cookie cutter to the heaviest stove, iron implements were the essential wares of everyday life and commerce in early America. From Forge and Furnace will feature a wide array of approximately 100 objects including weathervanes and decorative eagles; utilitarian objects such as hinges, a pot lifter and a soldier-shaped doorstop; kitchen equipment such as wafer irons, ladles, skewers and toasters; household accessories such as firebacks and a miniature flat-iron; lighting fixtures including chandeliers and sconces; and tools and equipment including an eel spear, a branding iron, a gardening claw and an anvil.
“The Colonial Williamsburg collection is perfectly suited to support an exhibition such as this. Since the 1920s the Foundation’s curators have sought out the full range of materials used in early America, both the fashionable and the utilitarian,” said Ronald Hurst, the Foundation’s Carlisle H. Humelsine chief curator and vice president for collections, conservation and museums. “Close inspection often reveals that even the simplest objects exhibit a period beauty all their own.”
Among the most unusual and historically significant objects to appear in From Forge and Furnace is, alas, one of its least attractive. Known as an iron “pig” (so named for the way in which it is cast in the form of piglets nursing on a sow), it was cast at the Occoquan Furnace located in Prince William County, Virginia, sometime between 1755-1765. Why do we care about it today, and what makes this ugly piece of iron worthy of inclusion in an exhibition in an art museum? Its provenance. Little “piggies” like this one were also transformed into bar iron at Occoquan, and sold to local celebrities. In April 1758 George Washington placed an order for “two ton, of one-inch, square bars—One ton, of three-inch broad, and half an inch thick, ditto.” Unfortunately, although the furnace was in full blast by October 1759, it was apparently too late for Colonel Washington’s needs and his money was refunded in November 1760. All was forgiven, however, as John Ballendine, who established the forge, was a frequent guest at Mount Vernon as was his sister, Fanny. As Charlotte (of Web fame) was known to have said of Wilbur, this hunk of iron is “Some Pig,” which needs no lipstick to make it historically attractive.
“Things made of iron are so commonplace, and have been for so long, that they are generally overlooked and taken for granted,” said Erik Goldstein, curator of mechanical arts and numismatics who curated the exhibition. “By gathering a wide variety of implements because they are all made from this metal, From Forge and Furnace shows how truly beautiful and indispensable iron was to early Americans.”
Along with the Occoquan Furnace iron pig iron in the exhibition will be numerous objects that are far more beautiful and decorative. A graceful, eight-arm chandelier made of tinned sheet iron, iron and paint (made in America, possibly New England, 1800-1830) shows with its elegant, curving arms, crimped pans and perfect symmetry, that anything practical that could be made out of tinned sheet iron, could be both fanciful and fully functional. Examples like this one were most commonly used in large, public spaces such as churches, meeting rooms and taverns.
About a century after George Washington placed his iron order in Virginia, his likeness—dressed in a toga, no less—was made as a four-foot-tall, hollow, cast iron sculpture as a decorative statue for a stove, perhaps by J.L. Mott Iron Works, which is yet another highlight of From Forge and Furnace. The design is closely related to that used by Sir Francis Chantrey (1781-1841) for his marble statue of Washington created in 1826 for the Massachusetts State Capitol Building in Boston. Both sculptures show him with a Roman toga draped over 18th-century garb, apparently intended to pacify both extremes in the heated 19th-century controversy over the appropriate portrayal of America’s founding father. Some artists preferred realistic contemporary clothing, but others wanted to ennoble and, perhaps, deify the late president by depicting him in ancient dress.
While neither grand, large nor patriotic, this simple pot lifter made of wrought iron in New England in the last half of the 18th-early 19th century is, quite simply, an especially attractive example of a practical device for lifting a hot pot or pot lid and is equally deserving of its place in exhibition spotlight. Folk art enthusiasts, iron lovers, culinary and early American historians alike are certain to be enlightened by objects like this one and so many more in this exhibition.
From Forge and Furnace: A Celebration of Early American Iron is made possible through major support from Bonnie and Ken Shockey (the Paul K. and Anna E. Shockey Family Foundation). Additional support was provided by Virginia J. Repas in memory of her husband, Paul Repas.
About The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg
The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg include the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum and the DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum. The Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum is home to the nation’s premier collection of American folk art, with more than 5,000 folk art objects made during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. The DeWitt Wallace Decorative Arts Museum exhibits the best in British and American decorative arts from 1670–1830. The Art Museums of Colonial Williamsburg are located at the intersection of Francis and South Henry Streets in Williamsburg, Va., and are entered through the Public Hospital of 1773. Museum hours from March 18, 2016, to January 2, 2017, 10:00 a.m. to-7:00 p.m. daily. For museum program information, telephone (757) 220-7724.
About The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation
The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation preserves, restores and operates Virginia’s 18th-century capital of Williamsburg. Innovative and interactive experiences highlight the relevance of the American Revolution to contemporary life and the importance of an informed, active citizenry. The Colonial Williamsburg experience includes more than 500 restored or reconstructed original buildings, renowned museums of decorative arts and folk art, extensive educational outreach programs for students and teachers, lodging, culinary options from historic taverns to casual or elegant dining, the Golden Horseshoe Golf Club featuring 45 holes designed by Robert Trent Jones Sr. and his son Rees Jones, a full-service spa and fitness center managed by Trilogy Spa, pools, retail stores and gardens. Philanthropic support and revenue from admissions, products and hospitality operations sustain Colonial Williamsburg’s educational programs and preservation initiatives.
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Robyn Liverant Public Relations