History Detective: Light Fixture Edition

Did you ever watch the show History Detectives on PBS? I loved the show; it is all about uncovering the story of an object.

As Associate Registrar for the Center, I am working with our Director Gregory Wittkopp and our Associate Curator Kevin Adkisson on an ambitious project. We are reviewing all fourteen of our cultural properties collections (over 9,000 objects), reviewing the data already on file and adding as much additional information about each object as we can. How do we do this, when the people who created, collected, or purchased the objects are no longer here? It requires being something of a history detective!

The collection we are currently working on is the Cultural Properties Collection at Thornlea. Thornlea was the home of George and Ellen Booth’s youngest son, Henry Scripps Booth, and his wife, Carolyn Farr Booth, from 1926 to 1988. It is filled with antiques, artwork, furnishings, and personal objects. In Cranbrook Archives, there are multiple helpful records about the home’s collections: insurance inventories, an index card file of objects created and maintained by Henry, and receipts for items purchased.

Light fixture over front door at Thornlea.

The one object I wanted to feature today is the unique light fixture over the front door to Thornlea. This custom and distinctive iron and glass fixture is important to the architectural character of the house, but I knew next to nothing about it. It appeared in early images of the house, so I knew it had been a part of the house from the earliest years, perhaps since the house was built.

Henry Scripps Booth peaks out the front door of Thornlea, circa 1935. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

To learn more about the fixture, I first looked at the insurance inventories and Henry’s index card file. Nothing there.

Next, I looked at the receipts under “Electrical” in the Henry Scripps and Carolyn Farr Booth Papers in Archives. Eureka!

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Lighting Up Cranbrook House: Edward F. Caldwell & Co.

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Holiday Tables, 2014. Stefanie Dlugosz, photographer.

This past weekend the Center for Collections and Research put on a display for Holiday Tables at Cranbrook House, organized by the Cranbrook House and Gardens Auxiliary.  Associate Registrar Gretchen Sawatzki and I put together a display highlighting the electric lighting original to the home, focused on lamps and lighting by the Edward F. Caldwell & Company.

Cranbrook House was designed and built in 1908, and George Gough Booth always had the intention of having electric lighting throughout the home. Within the city of Detroit there had been an interest in electricity, and by 1906 there were two power plants on the Detroit River owned and operated by the Detroit Edison Company. However, with Cranbrook House being roughly 20 miles to downtown Detroit, this was an achievement. The Booth’s interest in innovation propelled them to always be ahead of their time by investing in the newly available widespread utility for their home.

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Holiday Tables, 2014. Stefanie Dlugosz, photographer.

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Holiday Tables, 2014. Stefanie Dlugosz, photographer.

In the first half of the twentieth century Edward F. Caldwell & Company was America’s premier design and manufacturer for electric light fixtures. The New York firm founded in 1895 created designed and works with several prominent clients at the time including the Frick, Morgan, and Carnegie families. Much of their work was done in tandem with architectural commissions, and therefore clients like Booth were able to provide input and alter details to customize their lighting choices. Booth provided his own ideas about a few pieces for the home, but overall selected most of the pieces directly from their catalogues. During the construction and design of Cranbrook House, George G. Booth was actively involved in conversations with Albert Kahn, the architect, and many of the vendors providing goods and products for the home. Booth was enthusiastically involved in providing input on the design elements of the home, and the lighting was no different. Many of the Edward F. Caldwell & Co. catalogues can be found online through the Cooper-Hewitt Museum Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries

Stefanie Dlugosz, Collections Fellow, Center for Collections and Research

 

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