Wedding Dresses, Folk Art, and More at the Gloucester County Historical Society
In the heart of Woodbury, New Jersey is a stately home with a mansard roof, just a block from the Gloucester County Court House. Since 1924, this home has been the headquarters of the Gloucester County Historical Society, dedicated to collecting and preserving material pertaining to the Southern New Jersey area.
The original portion of the home was built by John Sparks, a prominent man during the Revolutionary War period, in 1765. Sparks' landholdings comprised two hundred acres of land. Some of his achievements include founding the Presbyterian burial ground at Woodbury, sitting as an elder in the joint session of the churches of Woodbury and Timber Creek (now Blackwood), and being a member of the provincial congress of New Jersey at Trenton in May, June, and August 1775, and at the meeting of the same body at Burlington in June 1776.
The Reverend Andrew Hunter, who was one of the 'Tea Burners' of Greenwich and a chaplain in the Revolutionary Army, purchased the home in 1792, and six years later it became the home of John Lawrence. During the Lawrence ownership, John Lawrence's brother, James, of “Don’t Give Up The Ship!” fame from the War of 1812 lived in the house while he attended school at the Woodbury Academy. The Woodbury Academy was founded in 1791 and was located on the corner of Broad and Center Streets. Coincidentally, Reverend Andrew Hunter was one of the school's trustees. On display in the museum is a drawing by James Lawrence of a ship, demonstrating his naval ambitions at an early age. This drawing was made for Isaac Whitaker, a classmate and friend at the Woodbury Academy.
By 1871 the house was owned by Judge John Jessup. In 1888, Jessup made dramatic changes to the home. The interior was gutted and roof line was altered, giving the house its distinctive mansard roof. On November 10, 1924, Jessup sold the home to the Gloucester County Historical Society. The Gloucester County Historical Society has maintained it as an 18-room museum ever since. The society has a vast collection of artifacts related to Woodbury, Gloucester County, and the State of New Jersey. A freestanding library building at the rear of the property has vast holdings and research materials related to South Jersey.
The museum's current exhibit is "White Lace and Promises: Two Centuries of Weddings," featuring over 50 wedding gowns from the museum’s collection, representing the time period from the 1810s through most of the 20th century. Also showcased are bridal accessories including headpieces, veils, shoes, fans, lingerie, and jewelry. Documentation such as invitations and wedding certificates, along with beautiful photographs from many of these weddings, are also on display. I will give you a small sampling of just a few dresses and other interesting artifacts that can be found on display in the museum.
The oldest dress on display dates to 1818 and is from the wedding of Eunice and Ephraim Goulding. The lightweight silk plaid dress is hand-sewn. She wore embroidered wedding shoes, which are in the second photo below. The shoes have been examined by professionals who think the shoes may predate the wedding based on their design and other details in their construction.
The wedding dress below was worn by Fannie Virginia Watson who married Edward Tonkin Bradway on March 21, 1882 at the Presbyterian Church in Woodbury. Fannie was the daughter of the late Judge John Watson. The exhibit also includes Fannie's nightgown, undergarments, and a blue dress she wore upon leaving for her six-month honeymoon. The couple built a home on Newton Street in Woodbury in 1893 and is currently being restored by its current owners.
The photo below highlights one of the many portraits hanging in the museum. The woman in the portrait is Anna Blackwood Howell (1769-1855), wife of Col. Joshua Ladd Howell. It was painted by Thomas Sully, who was born in Britain but lived most of his life in Philadelphia, Sully's subjects included Thomas Jefferson, John Quincy Adams, Andrew Jackson, and Marquis de Lafayette, as well as many leading musicians and composers. He also painted landscapes and historical pieces such as Passage of the Delaware, and his work was used on United States coinage. The tall case clock in the photo was made by John Wood of Philadelphia. The museum also has two other locally-made clocks on display.
The second floor of the museum has a number of themed rooms. The military room features a wide range of artifacts on display from the Revolutionary War through World War II. Of interest in this room is a chair that was present in Ford's Theater on the night of President Abraham Lincoln's assassination, April 14, 1865. Chair 425, armless with a cane seat, was acquired by David O. Watkins, a charter member of the Gloucester County Historical Society. Watkins also served as mayor of Woodbury from 1886 to 1890 and thirty-eighth Governor of New Jersey after the resignation of Governor Foster M. Voorhees, from October 18, 1898 until January 16, 1899. After Watkins death in 1938, his daughter acquired his estate and donated the chair in 1950.
The basement of the museum has a number of large objects, some related to agricultural, Native American, and architectural history. There is a reconstructed hearth from Huggs Tavern, which was built circa 1720-1721 by Joseph Hugg and located in nearby Gloucester City. Before it was demolished in 1927, the hearth was dismantled and its bricks numbered. It was reassembled in the basement of the museum, complete with cooking crane. On November 4, 1773, Elizabeth (Betsy) Griscom married John Ross at Huggs Tavern.
One of the most unusual pieces in the basement is a weather vane. The image of a raccoon graces this piece of sheet iron folk-art, which dates to circa 1840. The artist of this piece is unknown and it was posted outside of various shops and homes in Harrisonville, originally known as Colestown, from 1840 though the 1980s. It relates to the 1840 presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison, for whom Colestown was renamed after his victory. It is believed that this weather vane was made by a Harrison supporter and intended it to be a symbol for him, much like a campaign poster or sign today.
Another room in the museum displays over thirty of the Society's sampler collection. A sampler is a piece of embroidery produced as a demonstration or test of skill in needlework. It often includes the alphabet, figures, motifs, decorative borders and sometimes the name of the person who embroidered it and the date. Often, young girls would produce these samplers, such as the three in the photo below. The smaller, middle sampler was made by eight-year-old Sarah Fortiner from Haddonfield in 1810. The sampler to the right was also made by Sarah in 1811. Members have done much research into the girls who created these samplers by tracing their family history and ascertaining as much as possible for interpretation purposes. The Society has a separate fund for the conservation and preservation of these delicate pieces. Each year, more samplers are preserved and put on display.
If you visit: "White Lace and Promises: Two Centuries of Weddings" will be up until fall of 2017. The Gloucester County Historical Society Museum hours are Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 1:00 - 4:00 pm, and the last Sunday of the month from 2:00 - 5:00 p.m. If interested in scheduling a private tour during non-public hours to see this exhibit, this may be organized for you and/or your group with advance. Adult admission $5; children 6-18 years $1; children under 6 free. The Gloucester County Historical Society Museum is located at 58 N. Broad Street, Woodbury, NJ 08096. For more information, call 856-848-8531 or visit www.gchsnj.org.