Tales of a Tudor Place Intern: The Peppercorn Puzzle

By Sarah Dickey, 2011 summer Collections Intern

Sealed for 90 years, this packet revealed surprises
when our Collections experts opened it.
Sarah was one of several interns
inventorying collections in 2011.

One day this summer, conducting textile inventory with Collections Assistant Joni Joseph, we came across a box that contained several feather fans. Many were in small boxes that had been wrapped with newspaper and tied with string. One of the boxes was wrapped in sheets of the New York Herald from May 22, 1921, and did not appear to have been opened since that date:

Its wrapping, a Long Island newspaper, dated the object to May 22, 1921.

Carefully removing the string and paper, we found a box containing a bright pink feather fan with a tortoiseshell handle. Although the fan was beautiful and extravagant, what caught our attention first was debris covering both it and the bottom of the box.

Part of Caroline Peter’s luxurious wardrobe (including Hermes, Lanvin and stylish gowns from several eras), this
dramatic feather fan was littered with mysterious black debris. What was it?

Our first thought was pest damage, the worst nightmare of any Collections Manager. Upon closer inspection, though, we realized it was actually some sort of plant material. We turned to conservator Barbara Roberts, who determined it was… peppercorns!

Now, why would a fan be sealed in a box strewn with peppercorns? Our instinct was, it must be a home remedy to repel moths or other bugs. Preliminary internet research produced no evidence to back this up, however. Only after more in-depth studying did Joni confirm our suspicions at last, in a 1919 how-to book, Housewifery: A Manual and Text Book of Practical Housekeeping. Writing shortly before our fan went into storage,in a chapter called “To Put Away Clothing,” author Lydia Ray Balderston instructed:

The thoroughly clean garment should be packed in moth-proof containers, which range all the way from tight newspaper wrappings, and sheets of tar paper, to tar-paper bags and cedar chests. Pepper, tar balls, camphor, cedar chips, or a combination of cedar, camphor, and tar, such as is sold in packages, are usually enclosed with garments as an extra precaution. The object of these materials is to keep out moths and other insects, as they are pungent and irritating to the air passages of the insect.

— Balderston, Lydia Ray.  Housewifery: A Manual and Text Book 
of Practical Housekeeping.Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1919.


Sarah Dickey at Tudor Place.

The peppercorns certainly worked, as the fan showed no sign of pests or pest damage. It would be interesting to know whether someone at Tudor Place had read this very same manual, or whether the method was common practice at the time. Whatever the case, it was gratifying to see that whoever wrapped this fan 90 years ago was as concerned about preservation and conservation as we are!

Sarah Dickey recently received her M.A. in Museum Studies from George Washington University, with concentrations in Collections Management and Anthropology.

Tudor Place Times · Fall 2011

Kuykendall Joins Tudor Place as Curator of Collections

Press Contact:
Communications Officer
Mandy Katz, mkatz@tudorplace.org
Mobile: 202.486.7645
Website: www.tudorplace.org
Tudor Place Historic House and Garden
1644 31st Street NW
Washington, DC 2007

Download the PDF

September 7, 2011

Kuykendall Will Lead Research, Interpretation at Historic Site Tied to George Washington and 200 Years of Georgetown, D.C., History

Washington, D.C. – September 7, 2011 — Tudor Place Historic House and Garden has appointed Erin E. Kuykendall, a specialist in early American material culture, as Curator of Collections. Ms. Kuykendall, who holds a Master of Arts degree from the University of Delaware’s prestigious Winterthur Program in American Material Culture, will lead the research, documentation, interpretation, and development of the National Historic Landmark’s collection of more than 10,000 objects.

Her knowledge of decorative arts, architectural history, and historical archaeology provide Ms. Kuykendall a strong background for leading comprehensive initiatives related to the site. One of her immediate curatorial projects will be authenticating and researching Tudor Place’s rare 18th-century wax and shell work tableau, which belonged to George and Martha Washington.

As Tudor Place’s first fulltime curator in several years, Ms. Kuykendall joins Tudor Place at a critical point. The National Historic Landmark opened to the public in 1988 following the death of the last owner, Armistead Peter 3rd, after housing six consecutive generations of a family descended from Martha Washington. Ms. Kuykendall will play a key role in shaping and advancing the Master Preservation Plan now underway to secure the Landmark House for the future, adding security systems, educational spaces and archival and collections storage, among other purposes.

A native of Richmond, Va., Ms. Kuykendall has amassed extensive collections and interpretation experience at sites including Colonial Williamsburg, Historic Mount Vernon, the Reeves Collection of Chinese Export Porcelain at Washington & Lee University, and Historic Jamestowne. She also studied English country houses with the Attingham Summer School.

For her master’s thesis, Ms. Kuykendall researched carpenters and cabinetmakers in Revolutionary Philadelphia; as an undergraduate, she researched the material culture of security and privacy in 17th-century Jamestown.

Located in Georgetown’s Historic District, this National Historic Landmark is a house museum distinguished for its neoclassical architecture, decorative arts collection, and five-and-a-half acre garden. Built in 1816, it was home to Thomas Peter and his wife, Martha Custis Peter, granddaughter of Martha Washington. It housed six generations of the Peter family over the course of 180 years. Now, open to the public, the historic home is one of our nation’s hidden gems. For details visit www.tudorplace.org