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.