Jarrett Zeman, MDAH Museum Division cataloger, brings us this post in an ongoing series about his work on the IMLS project to catalog, photograph, and create digital object records for MDAH’s Museum Division artifacts.
Artifact research is sometimes similar to detective work, especially when researching artifacts at the Eudora Welty House.When museum staff want to learn more about how Welty acquired an artifact, or why she chose to display it, a better answer can be found by carefully piecing together the artifact’s history.
Recently, MDAH staff investigated this sugar bowl, which sits inside a cabinet in her breakfast nook. The bowl features a pink transferware pattern of a Victorian couple looking through a telescope, with a castle in the background. At first glance, the bowl looks like a nineteenth century object, seemingly out of place among Welty’s modern plates and glasses.
The first step to understanding the bowl’s history required a highly technical maneuver, we turned it over. The bottoms of many housewares contain a maker’s mark indicating the manufacturer and location of production. The maker is Royal Staffordshire Pottery of London, England, founded in 1795. Upon further research, we discovered that the bowl is a 1940s reproduction of a nineteenth century piece.
Who is Jenny Lind referenced in the maker’s mark? Known as “The Swedish Nightingale,” Lind was an opera singer and one of P. T. Barnum’s early success stories. Lind toured the United States from 1850 to 1852, including a trip to Natchez where she performed her soaring soprano to sold out audiences. Lind proved so popular, audiences in many cities could only acquire tickets by auction.
She quickly became one of America’s earliest celebrities, sparking off what the press called “Lind Mania.” Her image adorned several consumer products, including candy wrappers, handkerchiefs, and snuffboxes, while her name graced decorative arts from mirrors and chairs to plates and sugar bowls.
Either Welty or her mother, Chestina, purchased an entire place setting in the Jenny Lind style. Welty may not have known the story of Lind or the bowl’s nineteenth century connection, but this artifact reflects her taste in European housewares and decorative arts, on display throughout her home.