by Rachel Hertzberg, Bryn Mawr student and Wyck’s Summer 2018 Collections Intern
Some of Wyck’s most interesting historical artifacts are right underfoot, and may well go unnoticed. Iron boot scrapers gained popularity in 18th and 19th century Europe as a way to wipe off one’s shoes before entering a building. Historians conjecture that the appearance of these objects coincided with a cultural shift that encouraged walking rather than riding in carriages; as cities became more pedestrian-friendly, people needed a way to deal with dirtier shoes. The pair of boot scrapers on display just inside Wyck’s from door are charmingly decorated with griffins, and date from around the late 1700’s. At that time, the streets outside the house, especially Germantown Ave., would have been filled with garbage and waste. The scrapers are affixed inside shallow trays which would have been filled with water, and a sponge was always kept nearby for guests’ convenience.
We don’t know exactly how old these scrapers are, but one family descendant, Caspar Wistar Haines II, provided a little bit of family lore in 1927. Caspar moved to Wyck upon his retirement, during which time he and his sister Jane frequently opened up the house to tourists. When a reporter asked him about the scrapers, Caspar said he wasn’t sure where they had originated, only that they had been in the family since “the good old days of mud.” These words illuminate some of Caspar’s good humor and humility, and remind us that while the history of political movements or great leaders might be more celebrated, the day-to-day lives of ordinary people, mud and all, can be just as important.