DAR museum opens its doors to history buffs

By Janice Steinhagen - Staff Writer
Norwichtown - posted Tue., Jul. 12, 2011
DAR Regent Polly Gunther and resident docent caretaker Marianne VanderBout welcome visitors to the DAR Museum and Chapter House on Rockwell Avenue in Norwich. Photo by Janice Steinhagen.
DAR Regent Polly Gunther and resident docent caretaker Marianne VanderBout welcome visitors to the DAR Museum and Chapter House on Rockwell Avenue in Norwich. Photo by Janice Steinhagen.

On a quiet side street in Norwichtown sits a stone house full of memories from our nation’s history.

The Daughters of the American Revolution’s Norwich Chapter House on Rockwell Avenue is more than a meeting place for the DAR. It’s also a museum, and this summer “open house” times will be held on Sundays to introduce visitors to its collection of artifacts and memorabilia.

“Preserving history is what we’re about,” said resident docent caretaker Marianne VandenBout. Knowing that mission, many DAR members over the years have donated family keepsakes to the museum. Some, but not all of these, are annotated as to their specific historic significance.

Some of the memorabilia comes right from the pages of history books. There’s a key to the 18th-century Lathrop drugstore where Benedict Arnold, a Norwich native, worked before he joined the Continental Army and eventually became a turncoat. There are musket balls fired at the Battle of Groton Heights, and a fragment of a bloodied garment retrieved from the Battle of Stonington in the War of 1812.

But much of the museum’s collection speaks to everyday life – and to the realm of women, in particular.

For example, there’s a pair of tiny minuet slippers dating from the very early 19th century which, according to their note, “danced with Napoleon” Bonaparte at some festive event. VandenBout notes that they were made to be worn on either foot, as was common in that era.

The slippers share a display case with many other equally-tiny shoes. “They’re all adult female shoes, even given the size,” noted VandenBout. “Remember, nutrition was poor.”

The diminutive size of our forebears is also evident in the museum’s collection of dresses. Many of these hand-stitched frocks of gathered or pleated silk, adorned with delicate lace or silky tassels, date from the 19th century. And despite the fact that their colors vary widely, many of them were wedding dresses, or what VandenBout calls “stepping-out dresses,” worn to mark a bride’s first attendance at church with her new husband.

Among the curiosities at the museum are several sets of hoops, worn by 19th-century ladies to give their skirts the fashionable profile of the day. One set creates a bell shape with its concentric rings, held together with cloth tapes; another has a distinct bulge in the back, to support the dress’s bustle.

Of equally complex and collapsible construction are several calabashes – large bonnets designed over collapsible hoops to accommodate elaborate hairstyles and protect fair skin from the sun. The hats, which fold nearly flat for storage, were named after a type of large gourd.

Among the treasures donated to the DAR museum by members over the years are many examples of ladies’ needle arts: quilts adorned with colorful crewel embroidery, painstakingly-stitched samplers made by small girls to demonstrate their skills with needle and thread, three-dimensional crochet and dainty bobbin lace.

One of the more arcane forms of needlework, indulged by Victorian ladies, was hair work. Locks of loved ones’ hair were fashioned into flower and tendril shapes and crafted into jewelry or mounted as a framed “floral arrangement.”

The museum’s “doll room” is arranged in the manner of a nursery, with a collection of dolls and carriages, toys and baby paraphernalia. The oldest doll in the collection dates to the 1780s, said VandenBout.

She said the museum will be open 1 to 4 p.m. on Sundays through July and August. Starting in the fall, hours will be cut back to the second and fourth Sunday of the month, September through December, from 1:30 to 3:30 p.m. There is no admission charge, but donations are accepted.

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