By Camille Myers Breeze
This beginning of this story may sound familiar to some of you. From a young age, I started absconding with cool things my parents had in their houses, in my case the textiles. When they both downsized after I went off to College, they passed on to me everything I could find space for. By the time I was 35 and Museum Textile Services had moved to its own home, I had a bona fide study collection filling several archival boxes. Since then, family members have sent me everything from wedding gowns to souvenirs and, more recently, we have begun accepting the occasional donation.
I should stop here and make something perfectly clear. We are not a museum. We're not even a non-profit. Museum Textile Services is an independent conservation laboratory with a growing client base and a popular internship-training program. When someone contacts us about making a donation, we make it clear that we can't appraise their items or provide a tax receipt. Nevertheless, donors tell us, they are grateful to have found a place where their clothing and textiles will be cared for and put to good use.
Mike and Midge Burnham were referred to me late in 2012 by my friend Dana, who runs a vintage shop in Newmarket, NH, called Concetta's Closet. Dana had purchased much of their family's 20th-century clothing but knew that the older items were museum quality and not suitable for wearing. Was I interested, the Burnhams asked, in a donation of several boxes of 19th- and early 20th-century clothing? The size of the donation concerned me at first but what eventually convinced that it was destined for MTS was the Oberlin connection.
Some of the oldest donated items belonged to Mike's great-grandmother Cassandra Vernon Washburn Burnham. Cassandra (1849-1935) was a graduate of Mount Holyoke Seminary. She outlived her husband, the Rev. Michael Burnham (1839-1905), by 30 years, and during her widowhood she became innkeeper at Grey Gables in my college town of Oberlin, OH. Exactly how long Cassandra ran Grey Gables in not clear but in 1930 the college acquired it for student housing. In 1952, Grey Gables became just the second of Oberlin’s still-vibrant student co-ops but it was demolished in the 1960s during a wave of large-dormitory construction.The land on which Grey Gables stood became the Grey Gables parking lot.
Cassandra and Michael Burnham had five children, of whom two survived to adulthood. The couple is buried in Spring Street Cemetery in Essex, MA. Their son, the Rev. Edmund Alden Burnham married the highly successful contralto Ruth Thayer in 1895. Ruth Thayer Burnham's spectacular wedding ensemble, along with other outfits of hers, were also donated to the MTS study collection and will be the subject of future MTS blogs.
Museum Textile Services does not actively seek items for the study collection--we don't have the space or staff, for starters. But the stories these objects tell, and the opportunity for learning that they present, are priceless. For more stories from the MTS study collection, select "study collection" from the search bar on the right-hand side of this page.