Hidden Histories: The Quest to Put Names to Our Past

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Construction on the arcade of the Library wing, February 1935.

It began a few years ago with a handful of old, unlabeled photos. Images of workers who placed the bricks and the cinder blocks for the Museum’s walls and also installed the statues on Lions Bridge and in the Park. They were literally part of the very foundation of our Museum. Then the questions began. What were their names and their stories? Why were they so important to our Museum, but we didn’t know who they were? What we found, and are still finding, has evolved into one of the most interesting, impactful, heartbreaking, joyous, and eye opening projects we have ever worked on. A project we named “Hidden Histories.”

The earliest beginnings of the project actually started from several other initiatives. A quest to gather as much information about our Park and grounds as possible, and a look forward to our 100th Anniversary coming up in 2030. The emphasis on our Park is part of a long term project focused on issues like conservation, sustainability, ecology, preservation and the history of the area. This work has helped with the formation of our new Park Department which was announced earlier this month. The 100th Anniversary project is taking a look back at our history and also a look forward to see where we are headed in the future.

Both projects led to the discovery of photos showing the men who did the construction on our Museum and Park. As well as a number of images showing members of our Museum team dating from the 1930s and beyond. The photos are part of our Institutional Collection that documents what happens here. They include famous visitors, parties, exhibitions, large artifacts arriving, personnel photos, and just about anything else related to our day to day activities. While we knew what types of photos we would find in the collection, we didn’t anticipate finding out what we didn’t have. The men’s identities and a realization that despite our Museum’s focus on inclusion and connections within our community, we hadn’t made a connection with ourselves. In the 91 years since the first of those photos were taken, we hadn’t made a connection with the men who were the very foundation of our success. And the hard truth is that because of who they were, no one in the 1930s thought it important enough to label these images and ensure they would be known by their names and faces. The time was way overdue to correct this.   Read more

A Look at the Unknown and Hope for the Future: The Artwork of Shipyard and Museum Staff Artist Thomas C. Skinner

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CRUISER USS PORTSMOUTH AT PIER, oil on canvas 1945, by THOMAS C. SKINNER 1956.47.04

 

Thomas Catlett Skinner’s office was a loft overlooking the dry dock at the Newport News shipyard.  Frequently he would gather his tools and wander through the yard, stopping to observe and document the many scenes unfolding before him.  A vat of molten steel.  Red hot metal beams being bent into shape.  Yards of canvas transformed into sails.  The welcome respite of a lunch break.  The intensity of a foreman’s face.  A ship being refitted for the next voyage.  Scenes that were rarely seen by anyone outside the shipyard and activities that many people never knew existed.

Skinner’s tools were paint, pencils, canvas and paper.  His loft workspace shook with the unending pounding from riveting hammers and vibrations from heavy machinery.  And when he set up his easel beside the piers, dry docks and workers, he was surrounded by noise and dirt and exposed to the fickleness of the weather.   Yet despite the adversity, he created amazing drawings and paintings that transport the viewer back in time.  His body of work contains striking, colorful images that make it easy to imagine all the noises in the shipyard, the sound and feeling of waves acting on a ship and the harsh sounds of battle. Today, as part of our 90th Anniversary celebration, we take a look at the Mariners’ Museum staff artist, Thomas Skinner, some of his work, and its importance.

The Early Years

Thomas Skinner probably never imagined that one day he would end up in a shipyard.   Born in Kittawa, Kentucky in 1888, he spent most of his childhood in Waynesville, North Carolina.  From an early age, he was almost always seen with a pencil and sketch pad in hand, drawing whatever caught his fancy, and his parents were very supportive.  So when the time came for the family to move back to Kentucky, they probably weren’t surprised that Thomas decided he wanted to head to New York City to study art.

He arrived in New York at the right time.  An informal group of artists who called themselves the Ashcan Painters or the “Ash Can School” was in its heyday.  Their tongue-in-cheek name was a dig at the numerous ‘schools of art’ in New York and a description of the group’s subject matter, gritty, realistic portrayals of street life and the city’s inhabitants.  Paintings that didn’t romanticize, but showed it all, the ash cans on the sidewalks, prostitutes, street urchins, mud, and even the horse dung in the streets.  The work by these artists dubbed “New York Realists” and his travels in Europe to study realistic paintings by Dutch and French artists with Ash Can painter Robert Henri would highly influence Skinner’s own work.

At 26 years of age, and while in Paris in 1914, Skinner married French artist Therese Louise Desiree Tribolati.  He brought her back to his home in New York City that August.  He continued to work on his art during the war years, exhibiting and selling some pieces for the commercial market and magazine covers.   One of his paintings, an impressionistic depiction of flags flying from the porches of a row of houses, was shown in the prestigious Allied War Exhibition in 1918.  This non-juried show, which was organized by well-known art collector Duncan Phillips, didn’t offer any prize money, but being included as one of the featured artists did serve as recognition of Skinner’s talent and exposed more of his work to the public.  That same year, Skinner would be called up for military duty at the end of the war.  He spent his entire military career (September 1918 to March 1919) at Camp Hancock in Georgia.  The camp served as an airfield and a training facility for National Guard troops before they were sent overseas.  Skinner achieved the rank of private First Class but what his job entailed appears to have been lost to time, and if he spoke of his military service to friends and fellow veterans, that information apparently never made it into articles or his biographical information.  After his return from service, Skinner decided to study at one of the “schools of art” in New York and attended the well-known Arts Students League from 1920-1921 and at some point he also attended the National Academy of Design.

The Shipyard Years

In 1930, Skinner was asked by his brother-in-law, Homer L. Ferguson, to move to Newport News and serve as the staff artist for the newly opened Mariners’ Museum.  Ferguson, married to Skinner’s sister Eliza, was President of the Newport News Shipyard and the museum’s first Director.  He tasked Skinner with creating art for the museum, while at the same time documenting the scenes at the yard.  Was the job offer made because of any financial issues the Skinner’s might have been having?  Was it influenced by Archer Huntington who was an avid art collector and step-son of the shipyard’s founder?  That is unknown, but what did happen, whether or not it was Ferguson’s intent, was that the drawings and paintings Skinner created served to promote not only America’s industrial might, but also the prosperity of the shipyard.  Both noble causes for a country in the midst of the Great Depression, citizens who were desperately looking for hope for the future and their own lives, and the local community who relied heavily on the shipyard as an employer.   It is difficult to determine whether Skinner’s salary was paid by the shipyard, the museum, or both institutions, but years later his 1942 World War II draft card lists both institutions as his employers.

When he began work at the shipyard, Skinner was still finding his way artistically.  His style was still evolving but it was becoming more and more influenced by what he saw around him.  The grit, sounds, smells, and industrial scenes, that didn’t lend themselves to an impressionistic or romantic interpretation, began to take over, harkening back to his Ash Can School influences.  The longer he would work there, the more the style took over his artistic vision.

 

He was not only documenting what he saw at the yard, he was also producing paintings of each type of aircraft carriers the yard built.  His first and second of these paintings were of the first carrier completed, showing the USS Ranger shortly before her christening in June of 1934.  Skinner created two different paintings so the Captain and Executive Officer could choose which one they wanted displayed on the ship. It took him only six weeks to do the preliminary sketches and complete both paintings, and they were stylistically very different.  The one rejected by the officers had bold colors, a more industrial look and more focus on the shipyard workers and equipment in the foreground.  The other was a more romantic depiction of the ship with a delicate, but still accurate view as fog partially obscuring the pier and the workers.   Shipyard workers created a gold painted wooden frame for the painting that had corners carved to look like rope and the wood stamped with the Naval Aviation and Naval Observation insignia.  Skinner’s ‘rejected’ painting of the Ranger was put in the museum’s collection in 1934.

It is easy to imagine Skinner developing a fondness for each of the ships as he watched them being built, launched, christened, and then sent out to sea. Possibly even feeling like he shared a small part in their creation.   But during World War II, he saw some of those ships leave and never return. Skinner’s 1937 painting of the USS Yorktown shows the aircraft carrier in her full glory, plowing through the waves.   The ship was lost during the Battle of Midway in 1942.

The same thing would happen to some of the workers he stood beside, spoke to, and painted.  Men like him, who sometimes carried a bottle of beer to work in their lunch bag to help beat the oppressive heat in the yard.  In 1947 Skinner created his Memorial Mural, a three panel, 23 foot long and 6 foot high painting dedicated to the 28 shipyard apprentices who lost their life during WWII.  Battle scenes take up a large portion of the mural, but the right side depicts a soldier mourning a flag-covered coffin and the left side features a young apprentice amid his tools, holding his draft notice and looking out into the yard.  The names of the 28 apprentices are included on the mural.

Although he would still do other types of work like portraits and some nursery rhyme wall murals for a children’s nursery on a passenger liner, Skinner had become known both locally and beyond as a prominent and very talented maritime artist.   Locally, his works were featured in the museum, in shipyard ceremony programs and on the cover of shipyard and apprentice school publications.  Nationally, they appeared in newspapers, magazine articles and books.  When the museum decided to create prints of some of his paintings and drawings to sell in the gift shop, these versions of his artwork found their way around the globe and some still turn up in auctions today.

For the museum, Skinner also created a series of large, colorful murals that give an unprecedented look at the shipyard in the 1930s and its workers. The 14 paintings range between 10 and 12 feet long and slightly over 6-1/2 feet tall.  The bright color and layers of paint Skinner used for texture and depth give these works a gritty and honest look, showing the sweat, straining, and the power of the shipyard and the builders.  Skinner’s depiction of the shipyard’s 50,000 square foot Machine Shop shows the space full of immense tools like lathes and drill presses and boring machines.  A perfect example of why the shop was considered the largest, most expensive, and best equipped shop of its kind in the country.  His depiction of the shipyard foundry looks so realistic, the viewer expects to feel the heat of the molten metal being poured in the molds.

Also in the museum’s collection are 51 tiny pencil sketches on simple brown paper that Skinner may have used to experiment with potential subjects, line placements, shading and highlighting before he created the larger works. The smallest of these sketches measures about 2 inches wide and 2 inches high and the largest is about 5-1/2 inches long and 2 inches high.  Despite their tiny sizes, each is meticulously executed and incredibly detailed.

Outside the Shipyard

Skinner appears to have been a modest or very private individual, or perhaps both.  All accounts of him speak highly of his artistic talent and his individual works, but little else.  Newspaper articles about his brother who was a local lawyer and his sister Mrs. Homer Ferguson sometimes included a few tidbits of information about him or his childhood.  And occasionally there were society column briefs that stated Skinner and his wife were traveling or hosting various relatives at their home.  His obituary, where one would expect to read all his accolades, was also very succinct.  And no information could be found that stated how long he worked at the yard.   But it does appear that Skinner was actively painting right up until his death in 1955 at the age of 66.

Perhaps it is more fitting that Skinner’s works are his accolades and speak for him.  That they describe him best.  The individual brushstrokes and the pencil lines that offer a view through his eyes of a shipyard, men, and wartime loss.  The areas on his paintings where he put thick layers of paint to suggest a weathered beam or worn wood.  The grit, the sounds and the smells in our imaginations, and the ships.  The museum’s first, and only, staff artist during our 90 year history left an incredible legacy that has been enjoyed since we opened and will continue be enjoyed and appreciated by researchers and visitors far into the future.  A legacy that allows us to celebrate our shipbuilding past and the shipbuilders that made it possible.

Thank you for being part of our 90 years and thanks for reading.

 

A Toy’s Surprising Maritime Connection

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Slinky
Image credit: Roger McLassus

A lot of the research that is done to create an exhibit never makes it into the final product that visitors see in the museum.  The research eventually gets whittled down and fine-tuned until final decisions are made on the subject matter, story lines, artifacts, text and labels.  Many times the finished exhibit has very little in common with the original idea. So what happens to all that beautiful research that didn’t end up being used? It is saved in digital and paper files that are used to answer inquiries, create educational events and presentations, and as a starting point for other possible exhibits.  And in the case of our Toys Ahoy: A Maritime Childhood exhibit, the research files provides some great content for a blog post.

Initially some of the exhibit research looked for toys that were, or might have been, used on ships. As it turns out, Slinkys have ended up on military ships, private yachts and possibly even in the children’s nurseries on cruise ships. And the Slinky has another surprising maritime connection.

The idea for the Slinky toy began in 1943 when a mechanical engineer named Richard James was experimenting with springs. His goal was to find a way to stabilize and protect the delicate equipment on Navy ships from the rocking of the waves. One day he accidentally knocked one of his samples off a table and was surprised to see that the springs “walked” to the floor instead of falling. He may not have been too impressed, but when he told his wife Betty about the incident, they decided that the springs would make a great novelty toy. Which was a good idea because Richard’s experiments using springs to stabilize ship instruments failed to produce the results he wanted.

Richard experimented with different types of steel wire for about a year before he determined the perfect size, number of coils and how tightly they should be wound. He invented a device that could make one of the toys in just a few minutes and Betty consulted her dictionary to find the perfect name for their invention. She decided to call the toy a “Slinky” because it was graceful and sleek.

In 1945, they got a $500 loan and co-founded James Industries to mass produce the toys, but initial sales were slow. Their breakthrough came at Christmas that year after the couple got permission to demonstrate their Slinks on the end of a sales counter at Gimbal’s Department Store in Philadelphia. The Slinkys sold for $1 each and their entire stock of 400 toys sold out within 90 minutes.

Their business flourished, but by the 1950s Richard was somewhat uncomfortable with the material success they had achieved.   As time went on, Richard gradually lost interest in the business, and in 1960 he turned his attention to a religious cult in Bolivia and then left to join them. Years later, Betty would report that at the time Richard left, their business was a mess and they were on the verge of bankruptcy because Richard had given so much of his time and their money to the religion. In order to support her family, Betty had to become the driving force behind James Industries.

After several tough years, Betty decided to take a big risk in 1963, mortgaging their home and taking the Slinky to a toy show in New York to help revitalize her business. Her gamble paid off, renewing interest in the Slinky, and leading to the first TV commercials with the catch jingle “It’s Slinky, It’s Slinky. For fun, it’s a wonderful toy. It’s Slinky, It’s Slinky. It’s fun for a girl and a boy.” Under Betty’s leadership, James Industries also created other Slinky toys including the Slinky Train and the now famous Toy Story movie character Slinky Dog.

Since 1945, over 400 million Slinkys have been sold. Not only have they been to sea, they have been used as classroom teaching tools, in Physics experiments by NASA, and on radios during the Vietnam War because they were easily carried and could be tossed over tree branches, creating a longer antenna capable of producing a clear signal. And in 1985, a Slinky even took a trip into space on the Space Shuttle Discovery where astronaut Margaret Rhea Seddon demonstrated the effects of zero gravity on the Slinky. As Dr. Seddon reported, Slinkys don’t “slink” in zero gravity.

And in case you wondered, the plastic version of the slinky was also originally a failed experiment for another product. It was invented by Donald Reum while trying to develop a spiral hose for watering plants. His kids pointed out the result looked more like a plastic Slinky than a hose. Reum agreed, so he perfected his prototype design, took it to Betty James and ended up manufacturing the plastic Slinkys for James Industries for a few years.

While we don’t have a Slinky in our museum collection, we all have a shared connection with the toy.  Because the Slinky has a connection to the water, and we are all connected to each other because we are all connected to the water, those of us who have played with Slinkys over the years are all connected, too. #iamaMariner

Thanks for reading!

Iceberg, Milk and Moos

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Parka shirt and pants sewn by the tailor on Admiral Byrd’s second Antarctic expedition. Made from a thick blanket material while enroute on board the BEAR of OAKLAND 1936.23.01

The mysterious continent of Antarctica has fascinated explorers and dreamers for centuries. Through the possibilities of scientific discovery or just the challenges that come with the hardship of survival there, the siren call of the ice has beckoned many. But there were four intrepid explorers who never asked, or even wanted, to go there. From January 1934 to February 1935 they braved the cold, storms and whims of their fellow explorers while doing their part to support the expedition.

In 1928 when Admiral Richard Evelyn Byrd, Jr. announced his intention to go to Antarctica and explore the continent by airplane, he quickly found financial backing for his quest from wealthy Americans and private citizens. Among his many accomplishments, Byrd was famous as the navigator on a 1926 trip that he and pilot Floyd Bennett claimed was the first airplane flight over the North Pole. This trip to Antarctica would now make him the first American explorer there since Charles Wilkes’ U.S. Exploring Expedition in 1840. The successful 1928-1930 expedition launched a public revival of interest in Antarctica and more interest on Byrd. Along with the scientific research, the team established Little America base on the Ross Ice Shelf and Byrd made the first airplane flight over the South Pole.

But when Byrd began looking for funding for a second trip planned in 1933-1935, he discovered that it was very difficult trying to convince potential investors that additional geographical exploration and scientific research was necessary. Especially when the country was still hampered by the Depression era climate. Byrd’s solution was to raise the money through partnerships that would not only pay for and market the expedition, but also make money through products and publicity. Paramount Films, CBS Radio, General Foods and other companies signed on. Their investments in money and supplies gave them the opportunity to film the expedition, sponsor radio programs with interviews and updates from the team, and produce souvenirs. Byrd got his second trip to Antarctica and everyone involved got worldwide publicity.

Another idea Byrd had was to ‘make dairy history’ by working with the American Guernsey Cattle Club to take three cows with him to Antarctica. It wasn’t entirely a publicity stunt since Byrd reportedly drank two or more quarts of milk a day and disliked the more easily transported powdered variety. The dairy industry had an active advertising campaign to convince the public that milk was a healthy and necessary food for adults as well as children. Byrd’s actions would further reinforce that belief.

The three cows came from prominent dairy farms and were loaned to Byrd for two years. The plan was that a cameraman from Paramount would travel with them to film their experiences for a movie titled “Guernseys Discover Antarctica” and upon their return, the cows would be exhibited around the country at fairs and exhibitions with all the expected media fanfare. At the end of the two years, they would return home to their pastures.

Foremost Southern Girl from New York, Deerfoot Guernsey Maid from Massachusetts and Klondike Gay Nira from North Carolina were the chosen bovines. Klondike was the last one chosen because Byrd wanted a pregnant cow who would give birth to the first cow born in Antarctica. Their supplies were donated by investors and their care was entrusted to ship’s carpenter, Edgar F. Cox, who also owned a small dairy farm.

The cows traveled on the RUPPERT JACOB in a special shelter built on the deck and then moved inside as the ship approached colder climates. They seemed to have no problems adapting to the voyage, but their more than 15,000 mile journey couldn’t have been very pleasant, especially when their trip was delayed due to severe weather. The delay would also end up thwarting some of Byrd’s plans because Klondike gave birth to her bull calf about 250 miles before they reached the Northern Antarctic Circle. Edgar Cox had spotted icebergs just a couple days before the birth, so he named the calf Iceberg.

When they arrived in Antarctica on February 3, 1934, Deerfoot was the first cow to step foot, or hoof, on the continent of Antarctica. Not sure how impressed she was with her achievement, but Southern Girl was definitely not a fan of the ice and snow. As soon as her hooves touched it, she spun around and headed up the ship’s gangway, making it to the top before the crew managed to coax her back down. The cows and the explorers had to travel 2.5 miles to their temporary home at Little America base and all the cows made their way on foot, except for Iceberg who traveled by vehicle and was then carried by Edgar.

A large tent served as their temporary home on the ice but it didn’t stop the cows from suffering frostbite. At night they froze to the ground and each morning they had to be pried off the ice so they could stand up. As soon as a heavily insulated barn was made from thick bales of hay with a raised platform for them to stand on, they were moved and their frostbite began to heal. But for Klondike, the move came too late. The frostbite damage caused large wounds on her skin that never fully healed. On December 16, 1934 Edgar had to make the difficult decision to euthanize and bury her. Because the explorers had grown so fond of their little herd, the other cows were moved elsewhere and the men held their hands over their ears so they wouldn’t hear the gun. Klondike was buried not too far from Little America.

The cows produced about three times as much milk as the expedition could possibly drink even though their milk production gradually decreased as time passed. Iceberg grew from a calf to a strong bull. And then it was time to head back north. In February of 1935, the two cows and bull were loaded back onto the JACOB RUPPERT, all in good health. Although public interest in the expedition had waned as their time in Antarctica lengthened, their return to Virginia in 1935 was met with much excitement. As planned, the cows traveled across the country, ‘meeting’ dignitaries, state and local officials. They went to Washington DC, Chicago and even attended a luncheon at the Hotel Commodore in New York where Iceberg “grunted vociferously” throughout the speeches. Byrd described their reactions, saying their expressions were the same melancholy look “with which they contemplated the whole expedition.”

And afterwards? The cows returned to their farms. Iceberg was sent to the home of his mother, Klondike Farm in Elkin, North Carolina where he was said to have arrived with ricketts, a Vitamin D deficiency so severe that he wasn’t ‘considered of much use as a cow’. He was gradually nursed back to health and he was still a tourist attraction there in 1947. Iceberg also became an American folk hero, complete with a medallion made in his honor. Deerfoot never lost the thick winter coat that she had grown in Antarctica. She went back to Deerfoot Farms in Massachusetts where she lived until 1942. Foremost Southern Girl returned to Emmadine Farm in Hopewell Junction, New York where she lived in pampered comfort among a herd of 350 Guernsey cows who were provided for under an endowment set up by famous merchant J. C. Penny, the owner of the farm.

Thanks for reading!

A View Outside The Hold Of Our Ship…..Actually, Outside Our Collections Office

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A beautiful Autumn afternoon view outside our Collections Offices.
A beautiful Autumn afternoon view outside our Collections Office.

Being a Collections staffer means you spend a large part of your day indoors and inside windowless rooms.  Just as the wrong kind of light can damage artifacts in the galleries, it can also affect items as we are working with them in our offices and prep areas.   So any objects being cataloged, researched, cleaned, moved, numbered, etc.,  have to be protected from damaging light, no matter where they are in the museum.

All our storage areas and workrooms stay dark unless we need to access them.  And of course, no windows.  Research has shown that even limited amounts of light can have a cumulative effect on some types of artifacts.  So we store those objects in cabinets and boxes to help minimize exposure.  All the light tubes and bulbs are also covered with UV filters.

Working without windows can be tough on our crew, so many of our volunteers and staff take advantage of our 500 acre park and the museum courtyards during their lunch breaks.  It isn’t unusual to see staff walking the trails,  basking in the sun or taking their time traveling between buildings.

During a recent foray out into the waning afternoon light, I captured this image. The courtyard can be used by museum visitors too.  So the next time you are here, stop by to enjoy the view.  It may look a bit different because the benches get shifted around from time to time.  The colors change with the leaves and blooming plants.  And the number of people basking in the sun varies from day to day.  But it always looks great.  If you are looking for a place to hold a wedding, party or other event, it is also available as one of our rental areas.  We are happy to share.

Thanks for reading.