At this Delaware museum, rooms full of amazing furniture provide a unique tour through American history.
Many woodworkers (including me) have concerns about “keeping the craft alive.” As our lives become increasingly digitized, creativity seems to involve clicks and keystrokes rather than the tactile challenges of fine joinery. We fear that future generations will lose track of the innumerable details that define true woodworking artistry and craftsmanship.
Not to worry. If you’d like some reassurance about the timelessness of fine woodworking, I can’t imagine a better way to get it than to visit the Winterthur museum. Located just outside of Wilmington, Delaware, Winterthur is the former home and estate of the du Pont family. The museum’s amazing collection of decorative arts (nearly 90,000 objects) includes over 3,600 pieces of American furniture, dating back to earliest Colonial times.
The du Pont family played a major role in early American history, settling in Delaware’s Brandywine Valley in the early 1800s and building a business as a major manufacturer of gunpowder. By the time Henry Francis du Pont inherited the family’s estate (named “Winterthur,” in honor of an ancestral home in Switzerland) in 1927, the company had added chemicals to its product portfolio and become a leading industrial power. Primed with a Harvard education and the philanthropic potential of a family fortune, Henry Francis du Pont built a major addition onto the main house and began to fill it with period furniture, paintings, and other decorative arts. The Winterthur Museum was established in 1951 as a nonprofit, educational organization, opening permanently to the public that same year.
- Winterthur is pronounced as “winter-tour.”
- The museum has nearly 90,000 objects in 7 categories: ceramics, glass, metalwork, furniture, paintings and prints, textiles and needlework. These items were made or used in America between 1640 and 1860.
- Research and maker-creater fellowships are available, plus resources for schools, and adult education.
- Check the website for special events.
Address: 5105 Kennett Pike
(Route 52) / Winterthur, DE 19735
Phone (general info): (302) 888-4974
Tickets are available online and by phone: (800) 448-3883. Adult: $20; Senior and student: $18; Child: $5.
Chest on chest with carved shells, made in Providence, RI, between 1775 and 1790.
Today, it’s safe to say that Winterthur has become even more instructive and inspiring than Henry F. du Pont could have imagined. In addition to the furniture and other decorative arts displayed in the 175-room mansion, there’s a 60-acre garden full of specimen plantings, colorful displays, gazebos, and summer houses. Winterthur has two graduate programs in conjunction with the University of Delaware, which utilize the museum’s resources, including an impressive reference library. And there’s an ongoing selection of special events that include exhibits, seasonal displays, lectures, and courses. You’ll find the most up-to-date event information at winterthur.org.
When I contacted Winterthur about doing an article in the magazine, they put me in touch with Josh Lane, the museum’s curator of furniture. The tour that Josh organized for me was truly awe-inspiring. What became evident right away was the discipline that Henry F. du Pont exercised in building his collection of furniture, ceramics, and other decorative arts. He took pains to fill a room with furniture built by woodworkers who practiced in the same era and area. As we moved from room to room, I was able to compare furniture made by Newport, Rhode Island, cabinetmakers with antiques made by woodworkers in the Connecticut River Valley, Philadelphia, Boston, and other regions. In many rooms, the furnishings and architectural details are faithful to the same era as the furniture: fireplaces, weathered beams, wainscot paneling, wallpaper—even ink wells and quill pens placed on writing desks. Yes, this is as close as you’ll get to entering a time machine for a trip back through American history.
Authentic interiors. Many rooms feature furniture, furnishings, and architectural details that depict a specific historical era or style.
Step back in time. The Dominy workshop exhibit recreates the interior and exterior of a Colonial woodshop. Different projects are underway, and there’s an amazing selection of tools on display.
It’s fortunate that Winterthur’s staffers continue the practice that Henry du Pont started, acquiring historically relevant antiques, along with documentation tracing the history of each piece—who built it, where, when, and for whom. The museum’s reference library is a treasure trove of original documents: work orders, invoices, correspondence, and other artifacts that describe the daily lives of furnituremakers. When more needs to be known, in-house experts can analyze paint, establish wood species, and conduct a forensic investigation to determine how the original piece may have been altered at different times.
Any woodworker who visits Winterthur will want to spend some time at the Dominy workshop exhibit (see photos, above). Remarkably, this 1800-era workshop survived largely intact and undisturbed on eastern Long Island, New York, until Henry F. du Pont bought the entire contents in 1941. After carefully cataloging the workshop inventory, two workshops from Dominy property were recreated at Winterthur. The clockwork shop contains a forge and metalworking tools, including a small, hand-powered metal lathe. The larger cabinetmaking shop is set up as if its occupants had just stepped out for lunch. Projects are underway at different work stations, with all essential tools close at hand. A spring pole lathe is set up in one corner. Massive workbenches face each other on opposite walls, with furniture parts clamped in vises and hand-forged chisels at the ready. A high shelf along the back wall holds the largest selection of wooden molding planes I’ve ever seen.
The images shown here touch on just a few of the high points of my visit. The main message of this article is simple: Put Winterthur on your bucket list. Spending a day at this museum is an opportunity to walk through American history as told by a remarkable community of artisans. If you’re a woodworker, you’ll see a standard of craftsmanship that’s sure to leave a lasting impression.