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Artifact of the Month – Commonwealth Model

This month’s artifact is one of my favorite pieces in the collection. It is a music box model of the steamboat Commonwealth.

Commonwealth was built in 1854-1855 by Lawrence & Foulkes in Greenpoint, Long Island, NY for the Norwich and New London Steamboat Company. She was built for service between New York and Connecticut, and was commanded by Captain Jerome Wheeler Williams until 1864. In 1860 she was acquired by the Stonington Line, and then by the Merchants Navigation and Transportation Company in 1863. December 29, 1865, a fire at the wharf where Commonwealth was docked caused the ship to be destroyed by flames.

Print ca 1855 showing steamboat Commonwealth

Captain Williams stayed on as Captain of the ship until his retirement in 1864, when he was presented with this music box model by the Norwich and New London Steamboat Company as a thanks for his service (lucky, lucky man!). None of the boats under Captain Williams’ command ever had any serious accidents, which was pretty amazing back then. This makes it pretty ironic that the year after he retired the boat caught fire and was destroyed.

The model was built ca 1863/1864 by John Dean Benton, a silversmith with Tiffany & Co. It is made of gold and silver and houses a music box that plays ten tunes of the 1860’s, including ‘By Banks and Braes of Bonnie Doon’ and ‘Nellie Bly’. While playing the music, the paddlewheels and walking beam engine move. It was exhibited in the 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris where it, along with other items from Tiffany & Co., won bronze medal. It was also quite damaged at this exposition with many of the pieces on top having been broken off and stolen. It was repaired upon return to the US by Denton himself.

Water pitcher used on board Commonwealth with Captain Williams’ name on one side. Given to the museum in 1948 by his granddaughter.

What is also interesting to note is that while we did not purchase the model until 1947, The Mariners’ Museum became aware of the piece in 1929 at the New York World’s Fair. Our buyers were visiting the fair and came across the model. The owner, the granddaughter of Captain Williams, would not sell the piece as it meant a great deal to the family, but she promised to tell the museum if she ever did decide to sell. Sure enough, a letter arrived to the museum in 1947 stating that the model was being sold at auction, and we jumped at the opportunity to purchase the piece.

Since that time, the Commonwealth model has become a favorite piece for many visitors although it hasn’t been on display for many years. In September we pulled it out for our Gallery Crawl event and it was a hit! The only unfortunate part is that the music box parts are too fragile to play, but we recently found an old recording of the music and are hoping to be able to digitize it (fingers crossed the old recording hasn’t been corrupted).

A special part of the presentation at the Gallery Crawl involved taking an endoscope to two small cabins on the model that are furnished and very difficult to see because they are so small. They include chairs with actual fabric cushions, a table with wine and goblets, and carpet.

These images show the cabins in the front and rear, respectively. Although a little difficult to see, the cabin in the rear has a line of sofas running around the outside wall. It’s fun to compare these images to an actual image from the ship, which you can see here, on Wikipedia. It appears that Benton may have actually been on the ship as the carpet and furniture seem similar to what is seen in the stereoscope.

The cabins weren’t the only surprises waiting for us. Upon researching the model, I discovered an article that mentioned pennies from 1863/1864 being used for the axles in the paddlewheels. I pulled out my flashlight and, sure enough, there they were! Unfortunately they are very difficult to photograph, so I have the two photos showing one of the pennies and then what little text I could get to show up.

It is truly a fascinating piece and one of the gems of our collection. I will definitely post again if we are able to digitize the old recording and post that for everyone to hear.

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