Monday, October 27, 2008

Tin Lanterns and Oyster Shells

A few days ago, a Revere-style punched tin lantern, which I had ordered from Garber's Crafted Lighting, in Mammoth Spring, Arkansas, arrived at my house. It's very nicely made, with a sun-burst pattern and an accompanying wall hanger. Intended for the spinning room, the lantern found its place on the old plaster partition on the north side of the room, just to the right of the northeast chamber door.

Spinning room north wall and new hanging lantern; note the nail protruding from the door jamb

The spinning room has two such plaster walls, the other being on the opposite (south) side of the room. Both look very old, with coarse undulations on their surfaces and many years worth of obvious repairs and patching in spots. The north partition is particularly odd in that it curves off toward the parlor chamber doorway at about a 30 degree angle from a smooth bullnose joint, with the northeast chamber door just to the left of the bullnose. It appears to have been constructed with the specific objective of providing privacy, and leads me to believe that the northeast chamber may have served the house as a birthing and sick room

The bullnose is just between the lantern and door jamb; looking into the spinning room from the parlor chamber doorway

Interestingly enough, the other two walls, one being an exterior wall and the other concealing the attic stair, are relatively recent constructions of modern sheet-rock. But the two surviving old plaster partitions are quite remarkable, and I often wondered how old they actually might be.

When the house was completed in the late seventeenth century, it most likely had no interior plaster; rather, just exposed timber planking, and perhaps interior partitions consisting of simple wooden panels wherever necessary. In fact, plastering generally wasn't practiced in colonial New England until the early part of the eighteenth century, and certainly wouldn't have been viewed as something necessary in the earliest days of a wilderness settlement like Derby.

Close-up of the plaster surface with its rough texture and undulations

So, presumably, these partitions would not have been built until at least the early-to-mid 1700s. By comparison, all of the remaining plaster through out the rest of the house is much more finely finished, and clearly of a relatively modern vintage. For example, in several other walls, I've found milled lath and plaster with horse hair filler, which in my mind suggests constructions ranging anywhere from the late nineteenth century to about the mid-twentieth century.

North partition and ceiling; south partition wall and very old plaster just below the tie-beam

Shortly after hanging the lantern, I decided to remove two old nails that were protruding from the door jamb of the northeast chamber entrance. You can plainly see one of these nails in the first two photographs, just below the lantern. The other nail was just below the first one.

The nails served no clear purpose, and furthermore, there was a small risk of someone getting hurt by brushing up against one of them. So I extracted the uppermost nail first with a vise-grip, and in the process, a small amount of plaster broke away from the wall, and along with it, a fragment of an oyster shell.

Nail protruding from door jamb; the two extracted nails and oyster shell fragment

I've read that the earliest plasters and mortars in colonial times were thickened with crushed oyster shells. So my theory that the north partition of the spinning room is quite old was confirmed by this discovery. And I assume the south partition to be of the same vintage as the north, of course, based on their close similarity of appearance and the fact they are part of the same room.

As for the extracted nails, they are 2-1/2 inch, machine-made, square-cut nails. The head of the nail on the left in the photograph above appears to have been hammer-shaped, while that of the other looks like it's machine-cut. So my guess is that the first nail was made in the mid- to late-eighteeth century, while the other might be just a bit newer. It's hard to tell for sure how old they are, but they do seem to represent two slightly different manufacturing techniques.

1 comment:

AlexandraFunFit said...

Oh, I like that lantern. Great choice. I hope you do a post w/ pics of your outdoor porch lanterns.