In The News

New Art Association exhibit looks at antebellum Springfield

By Chris Dettro

An exhibit opening this evening at the Springfield Art Association gallery combines exhibits and lectures to look at antebellum Springfield in four different categories.

“This is Lincoln’s world, the stuff that surrounded Lincoln and the people he knew,” said Erika Holst, curator of collections for the association. “It shows what they bought, where they bought it and how they used it.”

“Hidden in Plain Sight:  The Material Life of Early Springfield” explores the architecture, archaeology, fine arts and decorative arts of Springfield from the 1820s through the 1850s. After the opening at 5:30 p.m. today, it runs through Oct. 5 during regular gallery hours.

“When we think of those years before the Civil War, we think of black-and-white, unsmiling photos, maybe even log cabins,” Holst said. “But people in Springfield had a sense of style and were sophisticated people.”

The pieces of the past — in some cases literally pieces — on display at the gallery many times sit in plain sight, Holst said, just waiting for someone to stop and take notice.

This and that

Highlights of the exhibit include photos of antebellum Springfield houses; a self-portrait by local artist Edward Richardson Jr., on loan from the Illinois State Museum; an 1830s ewer recovered from the Edwards Place privy; Springfield daguerreotypes; an 1830s wooden door from the cellar of Edwards Place; an 1831 sideboard owned by the Enos family and signed by the cabinetmaker; and the 1830s sofa and piano that witnessed the Lincolns’ wedding ceremony.

The piano was brought to Springfield from Baltimore in the 1830s by the Pascal Enos family. Holst said it likely went by ship to New Orleans, up the Mississippi River to the Illinois River and then overland from Beardstown to Springfield.

“Lincoln was all about internal improvements like canals and roads,” Holst said. “Not only do they allow farmers to get their goods to market, people also wanted to get things here so they can have the lifestyle they wanted.”

Itinerant portrait artists were coming through Springfield during this period, making portraits more affordable, she added.

A popular image of the day featured four giraffes and their Arab keepers who brought them to the London Zoo. The 1836 painting was reproduced  on a transfer-ware pitcher dug from the privy at Edwards Place and displayed as part of the exhibit.

“The archaeology collection was all dug up here on site,” Holst said.

Many of the fragments and other ephemera are things that weren’t taken care of by their owners and therefore ended up in the privy. Some were put there perhaps to hide them.

 “We have liquor bottles from that period,” Holst said. “People thought water was unhealthy, so they drank, sometimes a lot.”

Telling a story

A pottery churn and milk pans represent daily activities at Edwards Place. Merchants at the time often accepted butter in exchange for goods.

There’s also the hand-forged door of a laundry boiler that likely was removed when the house was redone in 1857.

The 1820s sofa that belonged to Ninian Edwards and was moved to the home by his son, Benjamin, was one of the first things to arrive by steamboat, Holst said.

The signed sideboard came from a cabinetmaker in Cincinnati and indicates that Springfield residents were looking to Cincinnati for fine furniture during that period, Holst said.

The four components of the exhibit also will be covered in lectures at 7 p.m. on consecutive Thursdays beginning Sept. 5.

The events are supported by a grant from the Illinois Humanities Council, which is supported in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Illinois Arts Council, as well as by contributions from individuals, foundations and corporations.

Holst said the idea for “Hidden in Plain Sight” came while she was poking around in the cellar of Edwards Place “to see what survived.”

“We’re trying to show there are still pieces around of this world that has disappeared,” she said. “They tell us about that time and those people. When you know the story, these things come to life.”

Chris Dettro can be reached at 788-1510. Follow him at

Want to go?

What: “Hidden in Plain Sight: The Material World of Early Springfield” exhibit and lecture series

Where: Springfield Art Association Gallery, 700 N. Fourth St.

When: Opens at 5:30 p.m. today; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday and 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays through Oct. 5. Lecture components as follows:

* 7 p.m. Sept. 5: Robert Mazrim of the Illinois State Archaeological Survey will discuss “Archaeology of Early 19th Century Illinois.”

* 7 p.m. Sept. 12: Erika Holst, SAA curator of collections, will talk about “Antebellum Springfield Art.”

* 7 p.m. Sept. 19; Andrew Richmond, vice president of Garth’s Auctions of Ohio, will look at regionalism in Midwestern decorative arts in his lecture “Buy Local or by River: Furnishing Springfield and the Midwest.”

* 7 p.m. Sept. 26: Christopher Schnell, a PhD candidate in history at Saint Louis University, will deliver the final talk on “The Built Environment of Early Springfield.”

Cost: Lectures and the exhibit are all free.