A Look Through Time: Creating Visible Storage in the Amstel House
Exterior of the Amstel House. Photo courtesy of New Castle Historic Society.
This spring semester I am leading a team of undergraduates from the University of Delaware as they transform a second-floor closet of the historic Amstel house into a visible storage display. On one of our first days of class, we ascended the elegant and brightly painted stairs of the house to visit collections stored in the attic. The variety of objects that lined the shelves overwhelmed us. There were wooden shovels, massive trunks, fireman’s axes, ceramic pitchers, cherry stoners, wash basins, and even a nineteenth-century dental key used to pull teeth. The students quickly realized that the stories most clearly animated by the objects involved labor. They seized the opportunity to expand the museum’s current interpretation of the eighteenth-century home.
Tools of labor add complexity to the interpretation of the Amstel house as “the first grand mansion of Delaware” by showing that the house was not merely a place of luxury for its various inhabitants throughout time. The Amstel house has bustled with a variety of daily labors throughout the centuries. Despite this, well-known political figures dominate the narrative of the house museum. At the time of its construction in the 1730s, the Amstel house was the largest home in New Castle, Delaware. By the close of the century, it was home to Delaware governor Nicholas Van Dyke who famously hosted a party attended by General George Washington. Washington’s presence is marked in stone in front of the fireplace, but the men and women who cooked, cleaned, and otherwise labored to prepare for him do not have such a clear marker.
A student poses with a fireman’s axe from the attic storage collection. Photo by author.
The tools selected for this display expand the narrative of the house from its rich eighteenth-century beginnings through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries when it was alternately used as a barber shop, sandwich shop, and a general store. Tools, such as a scythe and a shoemaker’s anvil denote the physical labor that went into earning a living in New Castle, while objects such as the cherry stoner speak to the labor of running a home. While not original to the house itself, the tools remind visitors that not only politicians meandered the streets of historic New Castle and climbed the brightly painted steps of the Amstel house – so did enslaved laborers, domestic workers, and various other New Castle residents who visited or managed the home throughout the centuries.
By Tess Frydman, WPAMC Class of 2018