The Watch at the Historical Society

By Judith Green

The watch must be handled with white cotton gloves, which make the visitor feel a little like Minnie Mouse. But the oils and acids on the skin would eventually leave their mark on its gold case, its delicate works, and the tiny pen-and-ink drawings on silk that line the watchcase lid.

No. 3675 in the inventory of objects held by the Moravian Historical Society in Nazareth, the watch is something of an anomaly in both function and craftsmanship. Much of the society’s collection—which after years in storage is in the process of being catalogued by executive director Susan Dreydoppel ’74 and curator Mark Turdo ’97—consists of furniture, musical instruments, objects of the household and the schoolroom: solid, well-made stuff designed for practical use over several lifetimes. The watch is a furbelow, and the Moravians were not known for furbelows.

Its story goes back to the Young Ladies’ Seminary (forerunner of Moravian College for Women) and therefore might just as readily belong in the collection of the Moravian Museum in Bethlehem, directly across the street from the former school for girls. But it also has a bearing on Moravian history as a whole, which makes it an appropriate piece for the historical society. “Our scope is essentially 51/2 centuries of Moravian history on six continents,” Turdo said.

When you open the watchcase, you see inside the back lid a fitted circle of ivory silk with a drawing on it. Beneath it, protected by a piece of tissue paper, is a second silk circle with another drawing. The fine pen-and-ink lines of the pictures are possible because of the nature of the material, Turdo said. “Silk takes inks and dyes better than other fabrics,” he explained. On linen or unpolished cotton, by contrast, pigments leach into the grain, which makes for illustrations with smudgy edges.

By the late 18th century, the Young Ladies’ Seminary was a well-established place for girls from well-off families to go to school. George Washington lobbied for the admission of two great-nieces in 1796, and the daughter of Clement Clarke Moore (who wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a.k.a. “The Night Before Christmas”) went there in the 1820s. And, as Rosalind Remer explains in her article, the Philadelphia merchant Thomas Armat sent his younger granddaughter there to get a genteel education and his older one, who was mentally disabled, because he knew the school would treat her with “dignity and care.”

As Remer explains, the little drawings inside the watch probably were not made by Jane Armat, but may have been painted by Samuel Reinke, a minister and school inspector who drew local buildings and gave the sketches to the young ladies of the seminary for their art projects. Turdo says the drawings are done “in the style of” Gustavus Grunewald (1805-78), an American romantic.

Whoever the artist, the drawings’ delicacy and detail are a feature of their time. The late 18th century was the Age of Enlightenment, an era of exactitude and precision, when “science” was synonymous with “progress” and “scientific” a term of the highest praise. American artists also were charter members of a culture of democratization, under whose auspices every citizen—not just the rich ones—could aspire to the best. One way to achieve cultural parity for those who could not afford the Grand Tour of Europe was to offer iconic works of art in reproduction, made possible by the ever-more-efficient technology of printing.

Artists sometimes made their own reproductions but more often licensed others to make engravings of their paintings, which were then set on printed pages so an American farmer or tailor could see for himself a Rembrandt Peale or Gilbert Stuart, though the original might be in a museum in London or on an estate outside Fairfax, Va.

The silkwork drawings in the watch show what was then called Bethlehem Church (now Central Moravian Church) and Bethlehem Seminary as they appeared in the early 19th century—fit subjects for Reinke (or someone like him) to pass along to the young ladies of the Seminary, to be copied or incorporated into their own work. There was nothing about landscapes and buildings that crossed the line into the chancier territory of the human form and all it implied of worldly culture.

So though the watch itself is but a footnote in the history of the Young Ladies’ Seminary, the drawings that line its case have historical importance in their own right. The Moravian Historical Society is pleased to have it in its collection, Turdo said, “first because it’s artwork we don’t otherwise have, and second, because it shows the Moravian influence outside the Moravian Church.”

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William Armatt's watch in
its case.
Photos: Courtesy of the Moravian Historical Society.