Tributes in Paper
Deborah M. Child
In the early nineteenth century, a master practitioner of the art of paper cutting in the city of Philadelphia made a technically unparalleled series of cutworks set within a rectangular framework incorporating circles and ovals. In each example, the paper was cut with such singular precision that its overall effect is comparable to the finest lace work. As Pennsylvania scholar Lisa Minardi has keenly observed: “this [intricacy] involves not just cutting out of designs but also slitting of the paper and/or pinpricking to create texture and add to the overall incredibly delicate effect.”
But what makes these records truly memorable is the maker’s ability to cut tiny cursive letters and set English names, biographical details, mottos, historical references, and sentiments within an elaborate framework rich with birds, hearts, urns, and highly stylized foliage. Combining text within such complex filigreed patterns requires meticulous planning and painstaking execution. Perhaps the maker had some exposure to Jewish paper cutting traditions as many Jewish cutworks made as expressions of faith or to celebrate festive occasions or mark a special occasion exhibit a similar level of complexity.
Paper cutting as an art form dates back to the invention of paper by the Chinese in the fourth century. It was introduced to America in the eighteenth century by Swiss and German immigrants settling in Pennsylvania. Despite the fact that these cutworks, also known as cutouts or papercuts, were made in Philadelphia, this maker’s handiwork is far more intricate than the scherenschnitte typically made by Pennsylvania Germans.
As only one of the cutworks lacks space for a recipient’s name (Fig. 17), they were clearly designed to be presentation pieces. None of them are signed or labeled, begging the question: who was this master? Further investigation of names cited in these cutworks has revealed that the recipients were either family members of Philadelphia prison reformers who had advocated for solitary confinement as a more humane form of punishment or prison officials and/or staff members in the two Philadelphia prisons that had adopted this system. Two cutworks have a history indicating they were made by a prisoner while incarcerated. If so, this may well explain how the practitioner came to have ample time to perfect this craft.
To date, eighteen cutworks can be attributed to this hand, and it seems probable there are more to be found.12 & 13). Two other cutworks have been mounted inside the lids of wooden boxes, one of which has been identified as a sewing box.They range in size from seven inches tall by nine inches wide to as large as fifteen by twenty inches. Ten of the cutworks have been highlighted with watercolor and ink before being mounted against colored paper, which enhances their overall effect. Four are presently fastened into wooden frames, two of them being their original housing (Figs.
Four feature central space for an inscription or label. One has the recipient’s name inscribed in ink directly on the paper support, while another has an embossed label that names the recipient (possibly applied at a later date and obscuring an inscription underneath) (Fig. 4). A third features a similar embossed label with “A.J.C.F” in capital block letters, indicating someone’s initials or an acronym for an organization. The fourth has been left blank (Fig. 2). In nine other examples, the maker incorporated the recipient’s name in cut cursive script as part of the overall design, while another in the form of a valentine carries the initials “M. J.”
Thirteen of the fourteen known recipients were residents of Philadelphia during the 1820s and 1830s. In addition to her name, Louisa Warren’s cutwork cites “Philadelphia, 1831” (Fig. 9), while two others cite “Philadelphia” along with recipient names but are not dated (Fig. 15). At least five of the thirteen Philadelphia residents had direct contact with inmates either at the Old State Prison on Walnut Street or at the new Eastern State Penitentiary on Fairmount Street, which opened in 1829. Other cutworks may have commissioned by members of Philadelphia Society for Alleviating the Miseries of Public Prisons (now operating as the Pennsylvania Prison Society), including one made for John Poulson (1781–1851). His father Zachary Poulson was one the society’s founding members and served as its chairman until 1831 (Fig. 16). Other recipients such as Hannah Wampole (1814–1893) were family members of noted Philadelphia philanthropists (Fig. 1). Hannah’s uncle, Isaac Wampole, was a member of the German Society who contributed to the relief of poor and distressed Germans in the city. The cutwork made for Susanna Budd Shober (1823–1898) was probably given to her by her Quaker father Samuel Lieberkuhn Shober (Fig. 3). Her presentation piece has been mounted inside the lid of a finely crafted bird’s eye maple box with brass feet, which has kept it in pristine condition. Susanna’s father Samuel was a merchant and a dedicated philanthropist in Philadelphia. Like many in the Quaker community, he lent a helping hand to indigent and illiterate amongst their citizenry. He also helped fund free and apprentice libraries, charity schools, and soup kitchens; served on various boards for the relief of the poor; and supported prison inspection societies.
Two of the cutworks have a history that provide clues about their maker. A letter (not signed or dated) once attached to the original backing board of the papercut made for Eliza Pidgeon Earp (Fig. 4) states: “This was done for my great-Grandmother by one of the convicts in the old State Prison [Walnut Street Prison] at Sixth and Chestnut Street. My great, great Grandfather Pidgeon was one of the managers of the Prison. This man took a great fancy to him, and made this for his daughter, Eliza Earp, with a number of other things in 1830. The man belonged to one of the first families in New York. He was the leader of a gang who broke into houses. He was imprisoned three times and at last died of hemorrhage.” Eliza (1793–1833) was the daughter of William Pidgeon (1764–1837) and married George Earp in Philadelphia in 1815. In 1830, her father was the deputy keeper at the Walnut Street prison (Fig. 5). This facility was built in 1776 and served as the state prison from 1790 until the Eastern State Penitentiary opened. It initially housed debtors and vagrants as well as convicted felons and was closed in 1838.
The Board of Inspectors who supervised the staff and approved funding at the two prisons were strong advocates of solitary confinement. They considered it the most humane and effective form of rehabilitation and actively encouraged inmates so confined to pursue individual crafts.Thus the idea that an inmate could have made these cutworks is wholly feasible. If the maker did, indeed, have a criminal past, this may also explain why his work has never received the critical attention it deserves.
An inscription on the back of a cutwork for Hannah Johns (Fig. 6) states: “Design cut out of ordinary brown paper folded in four. Cut with a knife by employee of William Johns while in prison for debt. Presented to Hannah Johns -name printed by her son. Early 19th Century. Preserved in glass by her great-granddaughter Emma Buckman.” Although Philadelphia resident Hannah Thorn Johns (1797–1854) did not have a son William (her spouse William probably made the inscription on the cutwork), the provenance of this piece is solid, having passed by direct descent from Hannah to her great-granddaughter Emma Buckman (1880–1968). The reference to the maker being an employee of William Johns (1791–1860) is, however, challenging. Beginning in 1817, debtors were traditionally incarcerated in nearby Arch Street Prison. Built in 1804, this prison was initially designed to address the issue of overcrowding at the Walnut Street prison but instead ended up housing non-criminal prisoners such as debtors or those awaiting sentencing.
Johns was a painter and glazier, and there are no records of him employing inmates at either Arch or Walnut Street prisons. However, he was a Quaker and a member of the Provident Society for Employing the Poor established in Philadelphia in 1824 and in 1831 served as an officer on the board alongside Eliza Earp’s brother-in-law Robert Earp. As a member of such a tight-knit community of philanthropists, he would have had contact with staff and inmates at the Walnut Street facility. This may have been one of the “many things” made by the convict that Johns later inscribed and gave to his wife Hannah. This would fit with its somewhat garbled history. Describing the maker as a debtor rather than a felon likely made it more appealing as a family heirloom.
Fig. 8 The Ann Coleson Cutwork, c. 1830. Cut paper inscribed "Ann Coleson", 10 x 15 1⁄2 in. Collection of Stewart Stender and Deborah Davenport. Ann Coleson lived from 1815 to 1836. A handwritten paper label taped to wooden backing board reads “August 24, 25, 26, 1881/ Harrisburg, Pa, Deaf and Dumb, #214.”
Philadelphia prison records reveal three more recipients who could have had contact with this maker. Two were staff members at the Eastern State Penitentiary, and another was the wife of a legal representative of Eastern State Penitentiary prison warden Samuel R. Wood (1791–1858). After serving as an inspector at the Walnut Street prison, Wood, a staunch Quaker, served as Eastern State Penitentiary warden from the time of its opening until June 1840.
When Eastern State Penitentiary opened with its system of solitary confinement, it was considered to be the world’s first true penitentiary (Fig. 10). Rather than using physical punishment such as flogging, it was hoped the terror of isolation would be enough of a deterrent to keep inmates from becoming repeat offenders. Prisoners were separated by thick stone walls laid out in a radial floor plan of seven one-story blocks that made conversation between cells impossible. Skylights provided the only source of light. Inmates were forbidden to have contact with family or friends or to hear of news or events outside the prison. Each day, inmates were allowed one hour of solitary outdoor exercise, but even this brief respite was frequently shortened in practice. Instead of being referred to by name, inmates were cited by the number they were assigned upon arrival and required to wear hoods when outside their cells.
Many inmates had resorted to crime simply to survive. Now, for the first time, they were enjoying three square meals a day, receiving clothing and medical attention, and being taught to read and write. They also acquired marketable skills in trades that were suited to the narrow confines of the cells. Labor could not only aid in their rehabilitation, but also could help offset their upkeep. Trades practiced at Eastern State Penitentiary included “shoemaking, spinning, weaving, dyeing, yarn dressing, blacksmithing, carpentry, sewing, wheelwrighting, wood turning, brush making, and tin working.”Being allowed to labor was a privilege, and, if deviant behavior was observed, prison staff would often withdraw it. The prison offered limited opportunity to earn from one’s assigned occupation. Still, making these cutworks may have been more than a therapeutic pursuit; it may have provided a means to earn some money before release or to support family on the outside.
The last known cutworks by this hand were made for Philadelphia tavern keepers Chalkley Baker (1793–1865) (Fig. 15) and Joseph Baker (life dates unknown), who were probably related. They are the most elaborate of the cutworks found to date. As they are also the largest, they may have been commissioned for display in their respective taverns.
Chalkley advertised his tavern on Fifth Street in Philadelphia as “Jefferson’s Wigwam” from the time it opened in 1834 until it burned in 1854. As he falsely claimed that the Declaration of Independence had been written on the premises, it is little wonder his cutwork bears the text “July 4, 1776, Philadelphia, Liberty, Freedom, Equality,” along with two American flags, an eagle, and the names of the thirteen original colonies.Joseph’s cutwork also contains an abundance of cutwork filigree with script concerning Andrew Jackson’s life, military accomplishments, and years as President. As the name “J. Baker” appears directly under “Jackson House,” many have assumed that J. Baker may have been the maker of all of these cutworks. In 1834, when Joseph assumed management of the Jackson House (the first innkeeper had been Chalkely), it featured a sign with the head of Jackson. This cutwork was probably commissioned by Joseph to celebrate the fact that this tavern served as the headquarters of the Junior Artillerists from 1834 until it closed in 1843.
Prison records, albeit incomplete, have yielded a possible maker whose history is consistent with that of the Earp cutwork: Abraham Eldred, whose numerous aliases include Abraham Eldrid, John Brown, John White, and Benjamin Eldrid. He was born about 1794 on Long Island, New York, and was a weaver before becoming a thief, a forger, and the owner of a groggery in Philadelphia. Given his trade, he could have had the hand and eye coordination to undertake intricate cutwork. His place of birth, age, and history of incarceration overlap with the history given by Eliza Earp’s great-granddaughter.
In July 1828, Eldred was sent to the Walnut Street prison to serve a seven-year sentence on charges of larceny. This is where Eliza Earp’s 1830 cutwork was executed. At the trial, his conduct prior to the crime was described as fair and not suspicious.Released from Walnut Street prison in April 1835, he would have been at liberty to undertake the two oversized Baker cutworks. Just one year later, on April 30 1836, Eldred was incarcerated again, this time at Eastern State Penitentiary to serve six years hard labor for larceny. This would have placed him in direct contact with Warden Wood, who had previously served as an inspector at Walnut Street and may have been acquainted with Eldred there. At Eastern, Eldred would have had contact with overseers Blundin and Clayton and possibly Williams, the warden’s legal advisor.
The Eastern State Penitentiary admission record book describes Eldred as: “Abraham Eldred, 42, Long Island, NY, can’t read or write, gets drunk; married; Larcenies 6 years. An old convict mind sometimes slightly impressed with the certainty of death and judgment but hopeless of change. Poverty and want of employment forces him to steal. Has been to Walnut St. prison repeatedly.” Being literate is not necessarily a requirement for making these cutworks. Some of the best engravers of counterfeit American money in this era could not read or write English. With a prototype to imitate, they could proceed successfully in their craft.
Upon his release on April 30, 1842, Eldred's Eastern State Penitentiary admission record was amended to read: “he had learned to read in prison, also writing and some arithmetic.”At the time of his release, he signed his name in the affidavit book with a decided flourish “Abraham Eldrid.” In January 1844, he returned again to Eastern State Penitentiary and was assigned #1786 and sentenced to four years for forgery. The convict reception registration noted that he went by the name “John Brown, al[ias] White, formerly No. 591 Abraham Eldred: 50 years, native of N. York, bound to a weaver master who wouldn’t have him, trade weaver, fourth conviction, second one here, parents dead, reads but cannot write, drinks, married, no property, crime forgery, sentenced four years Philadelphia Court, Quarter Sessions, received January 11, 1844, clothing decent.”
As repeat offenders did not get the same privileges as those entering the prison for the first time, this could explain why no later examples of these cutworks have been found. Eldred served his full sentence before being released in January 1848.In March 1850, Eldred was arrested in Baltimore on the charge of passing counterfeit money and sent to the Maryland state penitentiary to serve a fifteen-year sentence. He died there on August 26, 1854. According to his death notice, Eldred was born on Long Island, New York and was sixty years old at the time of his passing. He had previously claimed he kept a groggery in Philadelphia and took up circulating counterfeit money in the winter of 1850 when his groggery did not pay.
Whether a prison inmate such as Abraham Eldred made them, the unique designs and superlative quality of these Philadelphia cutworks constitute a remarkable legacy that clearly warrants further study.
The author wishes to extend special thank-yous to David A. Schorsch for initially sponsoring this project and to Lisa Minardi for her insightful queries and observations throughout the preparation of this essay. Thanks also to: Stacy Hollander, Louise Masarof, and Ann-Marie Reilly, American Folk Art Museum, NY; Deb Davenport and Stewart Stender, Minneapolis, MI; Nancy Druckman, NY; Annie Anderson, Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site, Philadelphia; Claudia Hopf, Kennebunk, ME; Peggy McClard, Weare, NH; Melissa A. Jay, Mercer Museum, Doylestown, PA; Nancy Rosin, Franklin Hills, NJ; Joan Johnson, Philadelphia; Ann Innis, Jane Joe, Lisa Morra, and Elaine Wilson, Philadelphia Museum of Art; and Jeanne Solensky, Winterthur library, Winterthur, DE.
About the Author
1 Lisa Minardi, note to author, undated.
2 Sandra Gilpin, “Scherenschnitte and Fraktur,” Pennsylvania Folklife 37.4 (Summer, 1988) 190-192.
3 Eight works by this hand were first identified by Lisa Minardi, Drawn with Spirit: Pennsylvania German Fraktur from the Joan and Victor Johnson Collection (Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2015) 335.
4 Winterthur Museum, John and Carolyn Grossman Collection, Col. 838.
5 Valentine initialed in filigree in center “MJ,” 9 x 13 inches. Provenance: Important Frakturs, Embroidered Pictures. Theorem Paintings and Cutwork Pictures. Collection of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch. Sotheby’s, New York, Jan. 23, 1974, lot 51. Current location unknown.
6 According to the Eastern State Penitentiary’s web site, the new prison was “known for its grand architecture and strict discipline” and was “the world’s first true penitentiary, a prison designed to inspire penitence, or true regret, in the hearts of prisoners. The building itself was an architectural wonder; it had running water and central heat before the White House and attracted visitors from around the globe.” www.easternstate.org
7 Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records. Ancestry. com. Poulson’s American Daily Advertiser, Dec. 29, 1824, 3.
8 “Married” Philadelphia Gazette, Dec. 9, 1815, p. 3. DeSilver’s Philadelphia Directory and Stranger’s Guide of 1830. William Pidgeon is cited deputy keeper at Walnut 1825, 1828, 1829 and 1831. He was gone by 1833 when he is cited as senior cordwainer at 352 8 St. Philadelphia.
9 Norman Bruce Johnston, Kenneth Finkel and Jeffrey A. Cohen, Eastern State Penitentiary: Crucible of Good Intentions (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2000) 26-29.
10 When space constraints at the Walnut Street prison increasingly restricted the number of convicts that could be housed in isolation, prison reformers insisted a new prison was a necessity which resulted in the unusual design of the Eastern State Penitentiary. Jacqueline Thibaut, “To Pave the Way to Penitence: Prisoners and Discipline at the Eastern State Penitentiary,’ The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Vol. 106, No. 2 (April 1982) 187- 222.
11 LeRoy B. DePuy, “The Walnut Street Prison: Pennsylvania’s First Penitentiary,” Pennsylvania History, vol. 19, no. 2 (April, 1951), 2-16. “A Day in the Arch Street Jail,” Philadelphia Inquirer, vol. 1., no. 277, Tues. April, 20, 1830, 1. “Chamber of Commerce,” Philadelphia Inquirer, Jan. 19, 1831, 2.
12 Executive Minutes of Governor J. Andrew Shulze, 1826- 1832, series 9, vol. ix, 6972-6973. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, PA. (hereafter referred to as PHMC).
13 Ann was the daughter of Caleb Coleson, also spelt Colson, and Sarah Bradway, who married in Salem, New Jersey in 1812. Monthly Meeting of Woman Friends of Philadelphia held 24th of 2nd month 1820. Accessed Ancestry.com.
14 Judith Scheffler, “‘Wise as serpents and harmless as doves’”: The Contributions of the Female Prison Association of Friends in Philadelphia, 1823–1870.” Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies 81, no. 3 (2014): 305. On the back of Coleson’s cutwork are inscribed the dates and place of the First Convention of Pennsylvania Deaf-mute Association, held at Harrisburg, for Alumni Aug. 24, 25, and 26, 1881. There is no record of Coleson being so afflicted.
15 Historical Society of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records. Ancestry. com.
16 This prison was in continuous operation until 1971 and is now a popular tourist attraction. www.easternstate.org
17 Norman Bruce Johnston, Kenneth Finkel and Jeffrey A. Cohen, Eastern State Penitentiary: Crucible of Good Intentions (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art, 2000) 47-49.
18 Negley K. Teeters, “The Early Days of the Eastern State Penitentiary at Philadelphia,” Pennsylvania History, vol. xvi, no. 4 (October ,1949), 272.
19 “15 Prisoners employed at winding bobbins and spooling earned 25 cents a day, a sum calculated to meet the charges against them.” Sept. 17, 1831, Minutes of the Board of Inspectors, ESP, vol. 1 1829-1840, R15.44, PHMC.
20 Also spelled Blunden, Blandin, Blanden, and Blundell.
21 The earliest reference to a John Blundin’s employment at the ESP is dated to April 23, 1829 when he received $61.81 as watchman. This payment is recorded in the Auditor’s General Report-Expenditures in Samuel Hazards’ 1829 The Register of Pennsylvania (p. 408). “November, 1835-On the 7th Robert Cain left his station as an overseer. On the 12th I placed John Blundin in his place and appointed Samuel Adair a watchman in the place of John Blundin.” Sept. 17, 1831, Minutes of the Board of Inspectors, ESP, vol. 1 1829-1840, R15.44, PHMC. psa.powerlibrary.org. The couple married at Old St. George Methodist Episcopal Church, Philadelphia. Historical Society of Pennsylvania; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania; Historic Pennsylvania Church and Town Records; Reel: 387.
22 Loss of his own “liberty” rather than theirs may have been foremost in his thoughts.
23 “December 17, 1834: Went into the city early and saw William Memdill and H. J. Williams who went with me as council to the committee of investigations.” Warden’s Daily Journals, ESP 1829-1855. Image 39/307, R15.50. PHMC.
24 Thomas B. McElwee, A Concise History of the Eastern State Penitentiary of Pennsylvania. Together with a Detailed Summary of the Proceedings of the Committee Appointed by the Legislature, December 6th, 1834 (Philadelphia: Neil and Massey, 1835).
25 Journal of the Senate of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania which commenced at Harrisburg on second day December 1834. Vol. 11, Harrisburg: Welch and Patterson 1834-35. 543. books.google.
26 “Visitors with a ticket from Mr. Bevan were kindly received, politely treated and shown all that visitors with tickets are usually shown. During their stay (of about 3 hours),” Oct. 3, 1835, Minutes of the Board of Inspectors, ESP, vol. 1 1829-1840, RG 15.44, PHM
27 Cutwork sold Cowan’s Auction, June 19, 2015, lot 4. At the time of sale Chalkley was cited as the maker. Philadelphia Inquirer, March 20, 1834, 3. Thomas Jefferson actually penned this document at the home of Mr. Graff on Market Street. Daily American Organ, Jan. 13, 1855, 3.)
28 “Junior Artillerists,” Philadelphia Inquirer, May 19, 1834, 2.
29 Abraham was probably a black sheep member of the Eldert family, one of first families of Long Island. The problem is there are too many Abraham Eldreds to know which branch of family he may have descended from to clearly identify him. familypedia.wikia.org
30 Samuel Hazard ed., “Commonwealth vs. Abraham Eldred and Nathaniel Strong,” The Register of Pennsylvania Devoted to the Preservation of Facts and Documents Respecting the State of PA. vol. II, no. 12 (Philadelphia: W. F. Gedden, July 1828 to January) 192. Only three Prison Sentence Docket books for this prison remain in storage at the city of Philadelphia. They are in such fragile condition it has not been possible to access them.
31 April 9, 1835: Governor Wolfe remitted sentence passed “Abraham Eldred who was convicted of the crime of larceny and sentenced by the Court of Quarter Sessions in said County, October 8, 1828 to undergo imprisonment at hard labor at the Penitentiary of the City of Philadelphia pay a fine of one cent with costs of prosecution & c.” Executive Minutes of Governor George Wolfe 1832-1825. Series 9, vol. 15, 8091, views 21. PHMC.
32 Abraham Eldred to serve sentence on two convictions for larceny 3 years each. Warden’s Daily Journals, ESP 1829-1855. Image 52/307, RG 15.50, PHMC.
33 These records were compiled by a moral instructor at the prison. The on-line database from which this information was derived from a collection of seven bound volumes of prisoner’s information admitted to ESP from 1830-1839. The entries number from #20 inmate through to #1124 inmate and represent approximately half of the prison population. Eastern State Penitentiary Admission Book A. 1830-1839. Collection of American Philosophical Society Library https://repository.upenn. edu/mead/22. Eastern State Penitentiary Admission Record accessed diglib.amphilsoc.org
34 “Benjamin Moses,” Sentinel and Witness (Middletown, CT) vol. VI, issue 2901 (July 16, 1828) 3.
35 Eastern State Penitentiary Admission Record diglib.amphilsoc.org
36 Convict Affidavit Books, Volume 1, 1835-1856. ESP Population Records, R15, PHMC.
37 Convict Reception Registers 1842-1929, ESP, R15.56, PHMC. “Received no. 1786 John Brown crime forgery, sentence four years.” Warden’s Daily Journals, ESP 1829- 1855. Image 147/307, R15.50. PHMC.
38 “Jan. 10 1848: discharged No. 1786 Abraham Eldred in good bodily health, no complaints to make.” Warden’s Daily Journals, ESP 1829-1855. Image 200/307, R15.50. PHMC.
39 The Daily Union (Washington, DC, March 19, 1850, image 4, accessed ChroniclingAmerica.loc.gov.
40 “Death of an Old Convict,” Washington Sentinel, vol. 2, no. 137 (Sept. 3, 1854), 2.