Anyone who knows me knows that I love movies. Among my favorite movies are Chariots of Fire and Goodfellas—how’s that for range? A number of years ago I organized a few film classes at the VHS, but at that time I couldn’t have imagined that I would ever be involved in the production of a movie. Virginia Voices was created during the past eighteen months and provides a snapshot of contemporary Virginia and its inhabitants through personal stories told by them and, in many cases, filmed by them. While fellow Virginians were submitting their responses, and our producer was traveling around the state collecting footage, back at the VHS we were busy upgrading the Robins Family Forum to prepare that space to provide the best film-going experience possible. It was really exciting when we premiered the film in the Robins Family Forum on March 17.
Today, the Forum boasts a 2K projector that provides high-definition images as crisp and clear as the best movie theaters, 5:1 surround sound so you hear rain falling and wind rushing around you, and an impressive 20-foot by 10-foot screen. Having watched my fair share of movies in the Forum over the years, the experience today engages one’s senses in a way that the previous equipment just didn’t allow. What you might not notice is that in the booth is a digital media server that frees us from relying on physical DVD and Blu-Ray disks. We also installed a 10,000 BTU air conditioning unit that will keep all of the equipment—and our projectionist—cool.
The feed from the Forum is also digitally connected to the Harry M. Bluford Classroom in the Carole and Marcus Weinstein Learning Center and the Halsey Family Lecture Hall, allowing us to send video and audio between the three rooms, linking the programming spaces of our entire complex together.
We’re looking forward to screening Virginia Voices on a daily basis later this year. If you’re interested in seeing all of the submissions to the film project, you can go to www.virginiavoices.org where they are archived.
Dr. Paul A. Levengood is President and CEO of the Virginia Historical Society.
Oftentimes when we think of history we recall the great names, the daring deeds, the larger narratives, and the accomplishments and achievements that fill our history books. And we usually think of the men who made history. Women, however, have also made history. When they’ve stepped outside of the proscribed roles that relegated them to supportive but essential responsibilities, they were considered unusual and sometimes unwomanly. They were not “well behaved” in the eyes of many. Women who drove cars, remained single by choice, dressed differently, and pursued higher education and/or careers were labeled nonconformists and sometimes considered a threat. The suffragists, for example, believed they should have the right to vote; they mounted campaigns to bring attention to their cause. War and the quest to locate a prisoner of war led one woman to mount a campaign during the Vietnam War. The Red Cross became a haven for women who desired leadership roles while still providing for the relief of the distressed. Business owners were an anomaly and faced obstacles yet persevered. The material culture that helps us remember these women and the history they left now resides in our museums. Celebrate Women’s History Month on Saturday, March 28, 2015, from 10:30 to 12:00, with a Behind-the-Scenes tour highlighting selected artifacts about women’s history in American culture.
Dr. Lauranett Lee is Curator of African American History at the Virginia Historical Society. She will be leading Saturday’s tour with Paige Newman, Associate Archivist for Collections Processing, and Rebecca Rose, Registrar. Read more posts by Lauranett, Paige, and Rebecca.
While conducting research for the “Virginia is For Lovers” Behind the Scenes tour that I led in January 2015, I came across dozens of sweet, heartwarming love stories in the VHS collection. This is not one of those.
The salacious love life of Warren Seymour Lurty, now memorialized in boxes and boxes of letters, proves to us that romance and marriage were as complicated in the past as they are today and that romantic scandal and politics are not just contemporary companions.
Warren Seymour Lurty was born in Clarksburg in what is now West Virginia in 1839, and he married a woman named Mary C. “Minnie” Newman in 1866. His life seems to have been full of excitement from the beginning: he served in the Staunton Artillery and the 19th Virginia Cavalry during the Civil War, where he rose to the rank of captain, and was captured and imprisoned at Fort Delaware. After the war he pursued a career in politics and law, with mixed success. He tried to run for governor in 1897 but failed to receive the Republican Party nomination.
Lurty possessed a flair for dramatic and sentimental language in his love letters. One, dated November 29, 1886, reads:
I do pray God’s blessing upon you, for if you were to die before me I don’t know what would become of me: how lonesome the world would be without the hope of seeing your dear face.
He wrote many similar letters from this time period with gushing, adoring praise. The only problem: these letters were not written to his wife, Minnie, but to another woman, Annie Sheppard. Lurty describes first meeting Annie “in the hills of W.Va. when [he] was a boy during the war” and that he was ever looking for her after that point and only married Minnie when “weary and worn.” To make things even more complicated, Warren at one point thanked Annie for the gift she sent to Minnie, indicating that the two women at least knew each other and may have even been friends.
This correspondence with Annie begins in 1884, eighteen years into his marriage to Minnie. We only have the letters that Warren wrote and Annie saved, but we can discern from Warren’s writings that although Warren was head over heels for Annie and desperate to find a way to be with her, Annie had some reservations. Often times, Warren’s letters read like those of a lawyer building a case for himself, trying to break down Annie’s hesitancy toward acting on their illicit romance.
However, Minnie died in 1894, at which point Warren’s letters to Annie immediately begin to discuss the idea of marriage. But with Warren’s first wife out of the picture and marriage now a real possibility, Annie’s reservations seemed only to strengthen. She held concerns about leaving her mother and about Warren himself—specifically his job prospects and his drinking habit. At one point, Annie recommended Warren take drugs that she believed would cure him of his alleged alcoholism, which enraged Warren. He wrote,
You I have no doubt acted according to your nature, it is a side of it I more had ignored before, or I assure I should never on earth been likely enough to have wanted to marry you. . . . I found my idol of years and years only a human thing and ready to trample the weak and assert power. . . . I commend your conduct and thank God with sincere piety you revealed your . . . disposition before our marriage. (May 23, 1897)
Surprisingly, Warren and Annie were married a year later. Less surprisingly, their marriage seems to have been troubled from the start. The issue of alcoholism was never resolved, and Warren’s letters became shorter, terser, and more bitter. (Perhaps lending credit to Annie’s claims, his health and handwriting also began to decline steadily.) Though he had written for years that nothing could make him happier than to be with Annie, Warren seemed to have been as disappointed with his marriage to her as he was with his marriage to Minnie. Six years after the wedding, he separated from the woman he had desired for decades. He died two years later in 1906, leaving his entire estate to his housekeeper, a woman named Susie Smith.
To read from decades of Lurty’s letters, visit the Reading Room.
Candice Roland is a library clerk at the Virginia Historical Society. Read other posts by Candice.
From answering phone inquiries to photographing new acquisitions, the staff at the VHS have a wide range of talents that help make our collections accessible to the world. Who are the talented men and women of the VHS? In a series of “Meet the Staff” blog posts, we will introduce you to the people who work behind the scenes to collect, preserve, and interpret Virginia history.
What is your job title?
When did you begin working at the VHS?
What are your job duties?
I assist patrons in the Joseph Bryan, John Stewart Bryan, and David Tennant Bryan Reading Room by serving research materials, answering questions, and filling mail orders, among other things. You can learn more about our library and what we offer on the VHS website.
How did you become interested in history?
Growing up in Virginia, I loved visiting nearby historic sites. Places like Monticello, Colonial Williamsburg, and Mount Vernon really made an impact on me. I have always loved stories in general, so studying history came naturally.
What is the favorite part of your job?
I enjoy meeting patrons and hearing about the wide variety of research topics they are pursuing—it’s like a “behind the scenes” preview of the newest books, exhibits, and historic preservation efforts.
What has been your most memorable moment at the VHS?
My most memorable moment in the short time that I have worked at the VHS has been taking a hard hat tour of the new exhibit spaces and learning about all of the exciting new plans to tell the story of Virginia.
What is your favorite item in your office? Why?
Since I do not have a traditional desk, I’ll consider the whole Reading Room my office. I love the bust of Pocahontas that sits behind the Reference Desk. She’s such an impactful figure in the Virginia story—almost mythological—and the dramatic pose and expression really capture that memory of her.
What is your favorite collection piece at the VHS?
Right now I would say “The Compleat Housewife” in the Rare Book collection, but my favorite piece changes often.
What is your favorite historical period?
Twentieth century U.S. history.
What are your hobbies?
Hiking, cooking (not baking), and playing viola.
If you did not work at the VHS, what would you be doing?
Taking a photography adventure across the U.S.
Anyone who knows me, knows that I love color. My masters’ thesis was about symbolism in color. I drive a metallic pink Vespa. I love my Pantone guide. And I am not afraid to embrace the fact that “pink is my signature color.”
You could say that because I am the Designer/Visual Communications Officer at the VHS, color is “my thing.” When I first heard about the book Fifty Shades of Grey, I thought that is was a new design book (whether you spell it gray or grey, we all know that grey is the new beige). I knew I was missing something…I could not figure out why I kept seeing people standing in line at the library to add their name to the wait list to read a book about color (I’m guessing that I’m probably not the only designer who was confused about the subject matter of the book). I eventually figured out that Fifty Shades of Grey is a very colorful book, but not the type of color I was expecting. Since I spend so much time surrounded by and thinking about color every day, I thought I would show you a random selection of objects from the VHS collections that include the color grey. So, I invite you to enjoy fifty shades of grey from the VHS.
Do you see any pieces that you like? Visit the VHS website to learn about purchasing a digital reproduction of items from the VHS collection.
Color is all around us and as I am sitting at my desk editing this post, I can see multiple shades of grey in the objects on my desk. So as a bonus photo, here is my non-staged desk. How many shades of grey can you spot?
Jennifer Rohrbaugh Nesossis is the Designer/Visual Communications Officer at the VHS. Read more posts from Jennifer.
George Washington was a legend in his own time, and some of his later biographers have been careless with the facts. A few of the legends are factual, and some are a mix of fact and fantasy. In honor of Washington and the Presidents’ Day holiday, test your knowledge of “the Father of His Country” with this brief quiz and see if you can separate fact from fiction.
Question: As a young boy, George Washington got into trouble for chopping down a cherry tree with a hatchet. True or False?
This is one of America’s most enduring legends. It first appeared in The Life of Washington (1806) by Mason Locke Weems and gained wider notoriety when it was printed in one of the McGuffey Readers. Most historians consider the tale a myth, but some believe that it is possible Weems heard the tale from a woman who knew the Washington family.
Because there is no proof, the answer is False. If you do believe the tale, the answer is still False because according to the story, Washington confessed his deed (“I can’t tell a lie, Pa . . . I did cut it down with my hatchet”), and as a result, he did not get into trouble.
Question: As a teenager, Washington copied out 110 rules of etiquette. True or False?
We don’t know many details about Washington as a schoolboy, and he described his education as “defective.” Some time before he was sixteen, he copied pages from a French book of manners, Rules of Civility and Decent Behaviour and Conversation. Perhaps self-conscious about his lack of a gentlemen’s education, these etiquette rules are regarded as formative influences on the development of his character. The answer is True.
Question: George Washington had wooden dentures. True or False?
By the time of Washington’s inauguration, he had only one tooth left. Four different sets of dentures were made for him. A number of myths are associated with them: one is that Washington had a set of wooden teeth, another is that Paul Revere made a set of false teeth for him. Actually, his first set of dentures was made from elephant tusks and a second from a walrus tusk. The third set, attributed to the artist Charles Willson Peale was lead based with two powerful steel springs. The upper teeth were probably made from cow’s teeth. The last set of teeth, now owned by the Smithsonian, was made of gold and hippo and elephant teeth.
Because of ill-fitting dentures, Washington’s mouth often appears in his portraits to be swollen and uncomfortable. The total effect gave him a somber appearance. The answer is False.
Question: Washington contracted smallpox when he was nineteen. True or False?
Smallpox was not common in Virginia when Washington visited Barbados in 1751. He contracted the virus and thereby acquired a life-long immunity. During the American Revolution, smallpox became a deadly threat to both civilians and the military, and Washington ordered that all new army recruits be inoculated. The answer is True.
Question: George Washington was the only president who never lived in the White House. True or False?
Washington selected the site for the White House in 1791, but he never lived there. New York and Philadelphia were the capitals while he was president, and the White House was completed after he died. John Adams and his wife, Abigail, moved into the unfinished house in 1800. Washington is the only president who did not live at the White House, so the answer is True.
Question: George Washington surveyed Natural Bridge in 1750. True or False?
There is no evidence that Washington surveyed Natural Bridge. Other Washington legends associated with the bridge include that he carved his initials on a spot twenty-three feet up the arch and that he tossed a stone to the top. The answer is False.
Question: George Washington made moonshine at Mount Vernon. True or False?
Washington was the only Founding Father to operate his own whiskey distillery. Five copper stills produced almost 11,000 gallons of whiskey in one year, making it the largest distillery in the country in the eighteenth century. Because Washington paid excise taxes on the whiskey, it was legal and therefore not moonshine. The answer is False.
Question: Virginia’s official state dog is the American foxhound, a breed that George Washington developed. True or False?
An avid sportsman, Washington imported French foxhounds for hunting purposes at Mount Vernon. He bred the hounds with his own black and tan hounds to create a new breed, the American Foxhound. Washington doted on his dogs and gave them playful names like Tipsy, Drunkard, Frisky Moose, and Sweet Lips.
In 1966 the General Assembly adopted the American Foxhound as the state dog.
The answer is True.
Question: Which one of these is an image of George Washington?
The answer is all of them depict Washington.
Frances Pollard is Vice President for Research Services at the Virginia Historical Society. Read more posts by Frances.