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A Fascination With The Common Place

May 2024
10min read

The vast jumble of objects that once brought solace to an eccentric heiress has become a great museum of the middle class

When Margaret Woodbury Strong died in her sleep on July 17, 1969, the demise of the seventytwo-year-old widow did not go unnoticed in Rochester, New York. For one thing, Mrs. Strong was one of Rochester’s richest inhabitants. She also wore sneakers and dressed, people said, “like a charwoman.” Most of all, Mrs. Strong was a notoriously avid collector of objects that few people collect at all—massproduced paperweights, decorated doorknobs, glass toothpick holders, old inkwells, buttons, plaster figurines, cheap tinplate toys, and honeymoon souvenirs from Niagara Falls. Mrs. Strong loved mass-produced nineteenth-century playthings and gewgaws with a passion commonly reserved for the rare and the beautiful. By 1969 she had not only filled twenty-five rooms of her thirty-room mansion with her eccentric collection, she had disfigured its architecture by adding two concrete blocks to each end of it in order to provide more space for what she called her museum of fascinations.


“Margaret Strong’s stuff a museum? You’ve got to be kidding,” was the prevailing Rochester sentiment when the will was made public. In it, Mrs. Strong had expressed her firm wish to perpetuate a public “Museum of Fascination” for the “display of my various collections,” but how much would be needed to accomplish this Mrs. Strong sensibly left to the “sole discretion of my executors and trustees.” Whatever the museum did not require from a $77 million estate was to be divided equally among the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, and seventeen other eminently worthy institutions. As a local newspaper said, “Mrs. Strong was a difficult person for many to understand, but she left a will that was thoughtful, generous and flexible.” It also left her executors in a painful quandary. Suppose Mrs. Strong’s “various collections” did not constitute a museum that the state of New York was willing to charter.


What then? The executors might well find themselves in court battling against lawyers for nineteen residual legatees backed by a sizable portion of Rochester public opinion.

That Mrs. Strong’s personal “Museum of Fascination “did not have the “educational” value required of an accredited New York State museum the executors themselves suspected. Museum experts confirmed their fears. “What Mrs. Strong found in her lifetime,” said one, “is a personal collection, not a museum.” Changing that collection into a museum presented “almost impossible problems” said a second. There was only one way to convert this “personal collection into a publiclyvalid museum,” said a museum director named Hoiman J. Swinney, and that was to bring all the subtlety of modern social history to bear on Mrs. Strong’s “stuff” in order to extract its “cultural significance.” The executors accepted the advice, committed $60 million to creating a “publicly-valid museum,” and hired Swinney himself to supervise the enterprise.


Without in the least intending it, Margaret Woodbury Strong had set historians, scholars, and curators an awesome and fruitful challenge; to extract social and cultural meaning from three hundred thousand objects that had, for deeply personal reasons, delighted the hungry heart of a rich and lonely old woman.

“From the time I was eight years old my father and mother would take me out of school and away we would go to foreign countries.” So Margaret Strong recalled some sixty years later when memories of childhood bliss had become the anchorsheet of her life. It had been, in truth, a blissful childhood, but it was a deeply defective one as well, rather like that of some precocious child in a Henry James story who spends too much time alone, too much time in hotels, too much time in the company of sophisticated adults, who, in Margaret’s case, were already thirty-seven years old when their only child was born in 1897. Margaret’s mother, Alice Motley Woodbury, was completely absorbed in a passion for tiny, carved Japanese utensils. “Kyoto is lovely,” Mrs. Woodbury writes home in 1905, the year Margaret made her first voyage round the world. “Such beautiful things are to be bought here. I have reveled in the shops and we have lots of things that are to be shipped home”—eventually to find a place in the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum. Margaret’s father, a retired manufacturer (and investor in Eastman Kodak’s wonderfully lucrative stock), was an avid collector of coins.


Young Margaret, too, was expected to shop and tour and sketch what she saw. In the scrapbook she kept of “my trip around the world” in 1907–1908, the ten-year-old traveler drew pictures of the furnishings of a Hong Kong hotel that would not have shamed a veteran antiques dealer, so keen was her eye for ornamental detail. Thrust into the company of middle-aged idlers, she took a keen interest in middle-aged hobbies. “On deck, Mr. George showed us his book of snuff bottles. All 616 pictures were colored,” she noted in her diary aboard the SS Siberia , outward bound for Japan. In hotel lobbies from Bath to Honolulu to White Sulphur Springs, little Margaret would approach lounging strangers and ask if they knew any riddles. These she would record in two calendar books, one for the questions, the other for the answers. She was a grave and methodical little girl.

Without intending to, Mrs. Strong set historians, scholars, and curators a huge challenge.
Margaret Strong’s only bright moments came from her memories of the distant past.

“You would say I was almost the third adult in the family, wouldn’t you,” Mrs. Strong once remarked in her brusque, cutting way. And it was true. Her middle-aged parents were her chief companions and school merely an intermittent resting place between Woodbury trips. So intermittent that Margaret never completed a high school education. Getting along with equals was a burden she never had to shoulder. Turning strangers into friends was a challenge she never had to meet. Her diaries served as her confidants, and scrapbooks filled with cutout pictures of Brownies, Kewpie Dolls, and Kate Greenaway’s fictional characters supplied her with fanciful playmates. She lavished affection on her dolls and loved to set them out, she once recalled, on the windowsill of her bedroom. When people passed by, she would rap sharply on the window to attract their attention to the pretty little figures, as if the dolls were her public self. The “third adult” in the Woodbury trio never learned how to make a friend and was never in her life to have one.


In 1915 Margaret had her coming-out party at the Country Club of Rochester (“Wore silver slippers. Hair combed high. 23 girls and 31 boys attended”), but in a sense she never “came out.” Her constant escort was an unsuccessful lawyer more than twice her age who bore a marked resemblance to her father. Although Homer Strong was scarcely an ideal match for a bright young heiress, the Woodburys encouraged his suit, perhaps because the meek, middle-aged rosefancier promised to minimize the disruptive effects of marriage on the close-knit Woodbury trio. The Woodburys’ present to the newlyweds (short, plain-faced bride of twenty-three and a tall, handsome groom of forty-five) was a fine house in a newly fashionable section of Rochester. The Woodburys built a house just in back of it. Until her death in 1933, the domineering Mrs. Woodbury would stride across each morning to arrange her daughter’s day.


The principal features of Margaret’s day were a baby daughter born in 1921, who was to grow up a wretchedly unhappy woman, and golf, which Margaret played with such skill and competitive zeal that she became one of the best woman golfers in western New York. She excelled, too, at archery, bowling, bridge, gardening, and competitive flower arranging. Margaret Woodbury Strong was good at everything except living.

When her father died in 1937, she bought an Italian Renaissance palace in the rural suburb of Pittsford, and the Strongs began to live more and more to themselves. Their only child was lost to them. A rebellious product of the radical 1930s, she despised her parents as capitalists, spurned their gifts, and deliberately dressed as shabbily as possible. Was it to regain the heart of her hate-ridden daughter that Margaret Strong, too, began to dress “like a charwoman” in cheap, cotton housedresses? If so, she failed. At twenty-one Barbara Strong married badly, drank heavily, and began deteriorating rapidly until a rare liver ailment cut short her shattered life at the age of twenty-five.

Four years later, in 1950, Homer Strong sank into hopeless senility, and Margaret, a rich, vigorous woman of fiftythree, found herself alone with a seventy-five-year-old husband who wandered the grounds at night raking leaves and setting fires. For Margaret Strong every prospect seemed hopeless; her only bright moments came with memories of the distant past. “I wish I could go back to 1920 and live my life over,” she once confessed. “I was so wildly happy up until then, but somehow, after that, my life changed.” In 1958 Homer Strong died, severing Mrs. Strong’s last link to the present.


She began collecting dolls, for they brought back the savor of the “wildly happy” times to a leaden, lonely heart. By the time of her death, there were twentyseven thousand dolls in her private museum of fascination. “She never, absolutely never, tired of showing you her dolls,” a Rochester dowager recalled. “The longer you stayed, the happier she was.” Dollhouses, too, brought back the precious savor and these, too, Mrs. Strong began to collect. Then she made a discovery. The obvious play things of childhood were not alone in recalling remote, happy times. As the child of a family of collectors, Margaret Strong had been uncommonly sensitive to objects. Now, by a reverse process, an astonishing array of objects still retained for her the exhilaration of childhood. Manufacturers had depicted the fanciful playmates of her scrapbooks on a huge array of cups, dishes, toys, and knickknacks; Mrs. Strong began collecting these. Snuff bottles gathering dust in curio shops brought back “Mr. George” and the SS Siberia , and so she began collecting snuff bottles. Every time Mrs. Strong discovered a new item that possessed the magical savor— fascination was her own word for it—she would open up a new category of collectibles. Onlookers were understandably mystified by so radically subjective a procedure. “You couldn’t help her at all,” a Rochester dealer recalled. “She’d come into my shop and walk around. Then she’d stop and point and say, ‘I want this one, and this one, and this one, and this one. … ’ Sometimes you’d wonder why she bought something. I’d ask her why and she’d answer, ‘I just liked it.’”

Driven in a limousine and dressed as if she were a charwoman, Mrs. Strong scoured flea markets.

Driven in a limousine and dressed like a charwoman, Mrs. Strong scoured antique shops and flea markets, estate sales and auctions. She outbid all rivals, trucked home whole collections, and welcomed all sellers at her door in her endless quest for anything and everything that possessed “fascination.” “She went everywhere, she bought and bought,” the Rochester dealer recalled. “She was kind of strange—people didn’t understand her loneliness and its pain.” By the time of her death, sad to say, Margaret Woodbury Strong had become a well-known figure of derision to a great many people in Rochester.


It was to take thirteen years and fifteen million dollars to convert Mrs. Strong’s Museum of Fascination into the Margaret Woodbury Strong Museum, a fully accredited, intensely educational institution in a boldly modernistic building in downtown Rochester. The conversion can best be described as the splendid triumph of mind over matter. What Mrs. Strong had collected out of loneliness and pain now sparkles with historical significance. Her passionate fondness for old playthings has been transformed into a penetrating exhibit called “A Century of Childhood, 1820-1920,” which traces the evolution of the American idea of the child from that of a sinful midget (pre-1830) to that of an innocent sprite inhabiting a world of its own (circa 1900). Mrs. Strong’s mass of domestic odds and ends has become “Light of the Home,” an eloquent portrait of middle-class American women in the years between 1870 and 1910. The imaginative exhibit “Changing Patterns” defines with notable clarity the successive changes in home decoration during the confusing era that began with the onset of factory-made furniture. Thanks to Mrs. Strong’s utter indifference to almost every conventional canon of connoisseurship, the Strong Museum has been able to portray social change in America in a uniquely intimate way.


A typical example of this is the small collection of early bicycles displayed in the “Light of the Home” exhibit. Not only does it illustrate the well-known cycling mania of the 189Os, it is accompanied by an advertising poster that reveals the real driving force behind a seemingly light-hearted fad. The poster urges people to buy a certain brand of bicycle “For Health and Recreation” and the poster’s illustration makes it plain what kind of recreation. It shows a handsome young cyclist reclining on the bank of a deserted country road waiting for his female cycling partner to dismount and join him far from all prying eyes. What the bicycle offered well-bred youth in late Victorian America, as the museum deftly shows, was unprecedented privacy and personal freedom.


The museum’s interpretative exhibits also reveal curious linkages among social phenomena. Until 1870, for example, lawns were almost exclusively the prerogative of the rich. “The first thing needed for a good lawn,” a horticulturist wrote in 1861, “is a great deal of money.” Then along came the Chadborn and Coldwell Company of Newburgh, New York, with their mighty “Excelsior”—a rotary, mass-produced lawn mower that could be had for as little as fourteen dollars. Armed with the Excelsior, the affluent middle class started laying in lawns of their own. In no time at all this sudden increase in cleared, level ground prompted sharp-eyed entrepreneurs to promote the games of badminton, croquet, and lawn tennis.

The Strong Museum can turn the noncollector into an amateur social historian.

Making the exclusive commonplace is one of the great social phenomena of the modern age, and this the Strong Museum delineates vividly, thanks to Mrs. Strong’s fondness for objects of commonplace manufacture. Victorian paperweights and gewgaws are shown to be the humble objets d’art of middle-class “house museums,” which aped in miniature the great art galleries and curiosity cabinets of the old European aristocracy. This fresh light on Victorian “clutter” makes for an enlargement of sympathy. Nineteenth-century knickknacks become ineffably poignant once it is realized that American families displayed them in their parlors as evidence of aspirations more refined than the materialism of the age.

The most striking insight provided by the Strong Museum’s historical exhibits is how little things have changed in the twentieth century compared with the revolutionary nineteenth. Canned foods were in wide use by the 184Os. Roller skating was a national fad in the 187Os. The American obsession with personal hygiene, deodorants, and toiletry was already firmly established a century ago. Little fantasy creatures who triumph over wicked adults, now a standard cliché of children’s television, originated with the Brownies created by Palmer Cox in the 188Os. Ferocious huckstering, vividly shown through Mrs. Strong’s collection of trade cards and posters, was as commonplace a hundred years ago as it is today. Doll mania swept the country eighty years before the Cabbage Patch craze. The list is endless. Judging by the Strong Museum, the last sixty years or so might seem a time of cultural stagnation.

Only a portion of the Strong Museum is devoted to its interpretative exhibits. On the second floor a substantial portion of Mrs. Strong’s “fascinations” are simply set out on shelves, including her peerless collection of dolls and dollhouses. Originally intended for the edification of experienced collectors, this “visible storage,” as museum people call it, has proven far more interesting to the general public than the museum’s creators had ever expected. It is the interpretative exhibits, I suspect, which have made them so. Armed with historical insights provided by the first-floor exhibits, the noncollector becomes a sort of amateur social historian.


Walking through the serried ranks of half-familiar objects, one can ponder, say, the remarkable fit between children’s toys and adult society as illustrated in the immense profusion of toy savings banks for the children of a commercial society and of toy derricks (my own childhood favorite) for the young inhabitants of rising new cities of brick and steel. Looking at the endless variety of objects, the social-historian-for-a-day might well puzzle over the quirks of the national psyche. What is it about Americans, for example, that made us so fond of folding chairs as early as the 185Os? What was the appeal of “potty figurines,” those ceramic statuettes of small children seated on chamber pots, blacks and whites often shown side by side. Immensely popular in an age of intense prudery and racial segregation, did these perverse little figurines represent a silent dissent from the official taboos? Perhaps, but nobody knows for sure. In the vast eccentric mass of objects that make up Margaret Woodbury Strong’s Museum of Fascination, there is still a great deal of matter that mind has yet to conquer.


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