The Porcupine in the Pigeonhole

By Elizabeth Palms, WPAMC 2020

It will never cease to amaze me how easily one spontaneous, unexpected encounter with an object in the Winterthur collection can stick with you and lead you down countless research rabbit holes.

A small writing desk, made of mahogany with decorative inlays of lighter-colored woods. The writing surface of the desk is shown unfolded resting on two wooden supports that have been pulled out like drawers beneath it. The desktop has a dark green leather covering, and two glass globe oil lamps, two miniature brass boxes, a brass pipe case, a portrait paperweight, a wooden bell, and a red-painted box sit on this desktop. Further in the background, the desk has a series of miniature drawers with six pigeonholes resting on top of them.

Tambour desk, John and Thomas Seymour and Thomas Wightman, Boston, Massachusetts; 1797-1804. Mahogany, mahogany veneer, satinwood, maple, walnut, cherry, Eastern white pine. 1957.0507, bequest of Henry Francis du Pont. Image taken by the author, courtesy Winterthur Museum.

A few weeks ago, my classmate Anastasia Kinagopolo and I were studying and sketching a Seymour Brothers tambour desk in the McIntire Bedroom. After over an hour of crawling under the desk to look at the construction, pulling out drawers, and talking over the object together, it was time to carefully put all of the smalls back on the desktop just as we had found them. It was then that I noticed a small seal stamp resting in one of the desk’s pigeonholes. Curious, I put on my gloves to pick it up and investigate further.

This little brass seal with its turned, baluster-shaped boxwood handle had a satisfying heft in my hand. Engraved on its face is a little porcupine with the words arching over him: “Touch me who dare.” Though spiky with all its quills and surrounded by grass and what appears to be some sort of shrubbery, this porcupine might initially strike 21st-century viewers like us as adorable. The warning phrase arced over this little fellow, however, connotes defensiveness or perhaps even hostility. Would sealing a particularly private letter with this icon be an attempt to fend off nosy people? Or would the imagery actually draw more and unwanted attention to such a letter? Anastasia and I, amused, pondered the stamp for a few more minutes before we had to make our way out of the museum for the evening. However, I continued to ponder this porcupine stamp and decided to research it further.


After briefly looking through the object file in Winterthur’s Registration office and reading Donald Fennimore’s catalog entry for this stamp in Metalwork in Early America: Copper and Its Alloys from the Winterthur Collection, I learned that scholars like Fennimore have tentatively linked this stamp to Englishman William Cobbett (1763-1835). Cobbett was an anti-Jacobin, anti-French Revolution, pro-British, and staunchly pro-agrarian journalist and pamphleteer who lived intermittently in the United States. Cobbett adopted the pseudonym “Peter Porcupine,” and his Philadelphia newspaper was named the Porcupine’s Gazette. He launched notorious attacks against his political opponents, going after Democratic-Republicans at large. Also among his American victims was Dr. Benjamin Rush whose bloodletting practices during Philadelphia’s Yellow Fever Epidemic concerned Cobbett. Rush actually brought a successful libel suit against Cobbett, and Winterthur’s Rare Book Collection has a copy of one of Cobbett’s pamphlets, The Rush-Light, in which he details and defends his side of the suit.

A well-worn pamphlet with frayed edges and a faded, light-blue paper cover. The publication title, The Rush Light, appears in the largest text towards the top, and the rest of the front cover is filled with text detailing subscriptions and advertisements.

Peter Porcupine, The Rush Light. New York: William Cobbett, 1800. E321 R95, Rare Book Collection Winterthur Library. Image taken by the author.

Needless to say, Cobbett had numerous enemies on both sides of the Atlantic, and he fled back and forth from England to the United States three times depending on how strong and even threatening his opposition was in each country. To discuss the intricacies of Cobbett’s life in a blog post like this would be impossible, so I have included a brief bibliography below, and I encourage anyone to read about this somewhat peculiar and lesser-known figure of the Federal era. Fennimore captures Peter Porcupine’s reputation, writing that Cobbett’s “acerbic writing style gained him a strong support but even stronger criticism, sometimes from members of his own party,” and that “American political cartoonists also depicted Cobbett as a porcupine dispensing verbal quills against opponents.”[1] There is not enough evidence to establish that the porcupine stamp in Winterthur’s Collection belonged to Cobbett, but it certainly seems plausible. Regardless, having briefly delved into Cobbett’s biography, I wonder at what point Cobbett adopted the porcupine as his personal brand. Did he embrace “Peter Porcupine” from the beginning, diving into his journalism career already fired up and ready to ruthlessly take on anyone with whom he disagreed? Or, did other people such as those political cartoonists Fennimore mentions assign him that abrasive, prickly personality to Cobbett, who then ran with it for his self-marketing? Was there even a deeper meaning attached to a porcupine in this context that I am missing? These are among the questions that this little stamp has planted in my mind.

You never know what you might find in a pigeonhole. Unexpectedly stumbling upon objects that captivate us in all sorts of ways is part of what makes being a Winterthur Fellow wonderful.



[1] Donald L. Fennimore, Metalwork in Early America: Copper and Its Alloys from the Winterthur Collection (Winterthur, Delaware: Henry Francis du Pont Winterthur Museum, 1996), 345.


Selected Further Reading:

Bowen, Marjorie. Peter Porcupine: A Study of William Cobbett, 1762-1835. Ann Arbor, Michigan: Plutarch Press, 1971.

Cobbett, William. The Life of William Cobbett: Author of the Political Register. London: W. Hone, 1816.

——–. Prospectus of a New Daily Paper, By William Cobbett. To Be Entitled The Porcupine. London: S. Gosnell, Holborn, 1800. Eighteenth Century Collections Online. Gale. University of Delaware Library.

Dyck, Ian. “Cobbett, William (1763-1835)” In Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford University Press, 2004.

Gaines, Pierce. “A Note on William Cobbett’s A Year’s Residence in the United States of America.The Yale University Library Gazette, 47, no. 1 (1972): 47-49.

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