Jonathan Hoppe

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Carriage Museum at Historic Sugartown

Early in 2010, I was brought into the Chester County Historical Society as an intern through the American Material Culture Studies Program at the University of Delaware. As part of a long-planned move of their offsite collections to a new, smaller storage space, a partnership was formed between the Society and Historic Sugartown, Inc. to display in a renovated firehouse a number of historic conveyances that had been in deep storage. Some vehicles had never been on display at all, and had been in storage for 70 years.

This Conestoga wagon came from Berks County, and represents one of the earliest and most complete extant Conestoga Wagons in the country. I'm bending down to adjust the tow chain.

This Conestoga wagon came from Berks County, and represents one of the earliest and most complete extant Conestoga Wagons in the country. I’m bending down to adjust the tow chain.

The carriages, sleighs, carts, and other conveyances were moved in a large coordinated effort from their storage location to the museum in February 2010. After a lot of pushing, pulling, and maneuvering, the vehicles were all installed in the museum.

This ca. 1870 hearse belonged to undertaker George L. Moore of Guthriesville, Pennsylvania, and came to the Chester County Historical Society in 1941. Here I am holding it steady while it is backed into the museum on ramp truck.

This ca. 1870 hearse belonged to undertaker George L. Moore of Guthriesville, Pennsylvania, and came to the Chester County Historical Society in 1941. Here I am holding it steady while it is backed into the museum on ramp truck.

The Conestoga Wagon finally made it inside after a long ordeal.

The Conestoga Wagon finally made it inside after a long ordeal.

Getting them into the museum was the easy part; now the real work of writing the labels could begin.

Now  in  most cases, this would be an “easy” task of determining and analyzing the context of creation to write interpretive and engaging labels for the museum-going public. Easy, right? Well, not so much with these carriages. Many of these vehicles had been donated before the era of good recordkeeping and accessioning, and the labels that had been attached to many of them had long since decayed. What was I to do?

I didn’t blink an instant. I dove into the Historical Society’s institutional archives, poring over donor lists, exhibit photographs, ephemera, and over 70 years of newspaper clippings to see what I could find about the vehicles. The task was not an easy one; after hours of reading, chance discoveries, a name or two, and persistence, the task paid off—the donors of most of the vehicles were found, though much more research still needed to be done. Thankfully, the Chester County Historical Society has an outstanding collection of manuscripts, maps, photographs, ephemera, and organized newspaper clippings to draw upon for information—and draw upon them all I did for these interpretive labels.

After several iterations and editorial reviews, the labels were printed and mounted (by yours truly—I’m a jack of all trades here) and placed on the reader rails for visitors to learn and enjoy.

The labels that follow were installed in the exhibition and represent original provenance and contextual research. Please note that the images have been blurred due to copyright considerations; those that are not are in the public domain.

This spectacular chaise is in poor condition, though it maintains its original elegance. Miraculously, an image of the very carriage in use was found in the CCHS collection.

This spectacular chaise is in poor condition, though it maintains its original elegance. Miraculously, an image of the very carriage in use was found in the CCHS collection.

The famous Moses Break Cart came to the Historical Society in 1950 from a local Kennett Square family. Images of the cart abound in the CCHS collection.

The famous Moses Break Cart came to the Historical Society in 1950 from a local Kennett Square family. Images of the cart abound in the CCHS collection.

This guidecard was made for a high-wheeled bicycle in the collection. The image was found in the CCHS photographic collection after a long search.

This guidecard was made for a high-wheeled bicycle in the collection. The image was found in the CCHS photographic collection after a long search.

Sometimes, no suitable images could be located at CCHS; though an image of this cart in storage in 1940 was found, it did not convey its use.In this case, a lithograph from the collection of the Library of Congress was used to give viewers an idea on how it would have been used in its time.

Sometimes, no suitable images could be located at CCHS; though an image of this cart in storage in 1940 was found, it did not convey its use.In this case, a lithograph from the collection of the Library of Congress was used to give viewers an idea on how it would have been used in its time.

Though the donor of this carriage was never identified, a maker's tag on the rear axle block provided me with the necessary information to write this label. A lucky find was this image, which even showed the type of carriage in the display.

Though the donor of this carriage was never identified, a maker’s tag on the rear axle block provided me with the necessary information to write this label. A lucky find was this image, which even showed the type of carriage in the display.

For the spectacular Conestoga Wagon, there were numerous images to choose from at CCHS showing it being moved into the building and on display. But an image of how it was used was adapted from a book to give greater meaning to the wagon.

For the spectacular Conestoga Wagon, there were numerous images to choose from at CCHS showing it being moved into the building and on display. But an image of how it was used was adapted from a book to give greater meaning to the wagon.

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