History Detective: Light Fixture Edition

Did you ever watch the show History Detectives on PBS? I loved the show; it is all about uncovering the story of an object.

As Associate Registrar for the Center, I am working with our Director Gregory Wittkopp and our Associate Curator Kevin Adkisson on an ambitious project. We are reviewing all fourteen of our cultural properties collections (over 9,000 objects), reviewing the data already on file and adding as much additional information about each object as we can. How do we do this, when the people who created, collected, or purchased the objects are no longer here? It requires being something of a history detective!

The collection we are currently working on is the Cultural Properties Collection at Thornlea. Thornlea was the home of George and Ellen Booth’s youngest son, Henry Scripps Booth, and his wife, Carolyn Farr Booth, from 1926 to 1988. It is filled with antiques, artwork, furnishings, and personal objects. In Cranbrook Archives, there are multiple helpful records about the home’s collections: insurance inventories, an index card file of objects created and maintained by Henry, and receipts for items purchased.

Light fixture over front door at Thornlea.

The one object I wanted to feature today is the unique light fixture over the front door to Thornlea. This custom and distinctive iron and glass fixture is important to the architectural character of the house, but I knew next to nothing about it. It appeared in early images of the house, so I knew it had been a part of the house from the earliest years, perhaps since the house was built.

Henry Scripps Booth peaks out the front door of Thornlea, circa 1935. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

To learn more about the fixture, I first looked at the insurance inventories and Henry’s index card file. Nothing there.

Next, I looked at the receipts under “Electrical” in the Henry Scripps and Carolyn Farr Booth Papers in Archives. Eureka!

Detail of receipt from Edward F. Caldwell & Co. to Henry S. Booth, 1926. Henry Scripps and Carolyn Farr Booth Papers. Courtesy Cranbrook Archives.

The fixture was created by Edward F. Caldwell & Company, a favorite of George Booth while he was building Cranbrook House. The receipt has a number (A 15352) and says it was installed over the front door. How could I confirm it was the same fixture?

Cooper-Hewitt to the rescue! Many of the Edward F. Caldwell & Co. catalogs have been digitized and are available at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries. A quick search gave me the result I was looking for. Caldwell item A 15352 matches the fixture on the front of Thornlea, and the receipt in Archives. We now know the maker, the materials, and when the item was installed.

Detail of image from Large Binder 6, Page 28, E. F. Caldwell & Co. Collection at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum Library, Smithsonian Institution Libraries.

I wish every object had a paper trail like this. Alas, many objects still have unknown makers and dates. But the fun is in the pursuit of answers. Sometimes the smallest clue, like an old photograph of the object on display, or a cryptic notation on a card, can lead you to the answer. As a registrar, and as a department, it is important to maintain as meticulous records as possible about all of the items—even light fixtures—under our care. As we review the Cranbrook Cultural Properties Collections and update our database, I hope to make and record as many helpful discoveries as possible!

For more on Edward F. Caldwell & Co. and Cranbrook, read Lighting Up Cranbrook House: Edward F. Caldwell & Co. or watch Kevin’s Live at Five virtual tour about Caldwell and Cranbrook House from December 2020, below.

—Leslie S. Mio, Associate Registrar, Cranbrook Center for Collections and Research

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