New look at old Annapolis

The Baltimore Sun

At a time when video gamers can simulate a tennis swing by waving a remote control, it might be hard to appreciate the attraction of the "perspective glass" on display at the William Paca House in Annapolis.

The zograscope was a luxury that only the wealthy could afford to have at home in the late 1770s. For fun, colonists could place an engraved picture upside down on a table, then look at its reflected image in a mirror suspended over it on a wooden stand. Through the zograscope, the image appeared right side up and three-dimensional -- an optical illusion that proved to be a nifty parlor trick.

The zograscope is the centerpiece of the new porch chamber exhibit at the historic Georgian home, part of an overall effort to fill it not only with authentic items but with "wow" pieces that keep visitors coming back for more, said curator Alexandra Deutsch of the Historic Annapolis Foundation.

The exhibit, which went on display Sunday for Maryland Day, shows what a living room of a wealthy family looked like during Revolutionary War times. It includes reproductions of an embroidery frame and a game of ninepins.

"We need to get something that is memorable to visitors, something that they can take away and say, 'Wow! I never knew about that,'" Deutsch said.

Zograscopes could be found at fairs where people would pay the hefty sum of a shilling for a "peep show" and catch a glimpse of an exotic locale, such as Paris. The pictures provided a thrill for people who could never hope to visit faraway cities.

"It was a means of armchair travel," said Tricia Herban, co-founder of the William Paca Society, a group of foundation members that finances activities at the 18th-century mansion.

Although it is unknown whether three-term Maryland Gov. William Paca owned a zograscope, he would have been familiar with them from his time studying in Philadelphia, where peep shows were popular, Deutsch said. They were a common fixture in homes of genteel families of the day. Paca's colleague in the Continental Congress, Thomas Jefferson, had a zograscope.

Nowadays, it is hard for video-addled eyes to see what all the fuss could have been about. In fact, the people in the pictures don't seem to pop, although walkways do appear elongated.

"I think if I had lived during that time, I would have thought it was something," said Betty Levin, a visitor to the Paca House from Laguna Niguel, Calif. "I can't imagine our teenage grandchildren sitting there and saying, 'Ahhhhh.'"

The acquisition is a coup for the William Paca House because zograscopes in good condition are a rare find, Deutsch said. She found this one in December 2006 on a Web site in England. The images are of Paris, Venice and a Chinese temple. Engravers often picked real places and created fanciful versions of what they or others saw.

The new exhibit is in the porch chamber, the name for the room above the porch. The William Paca Society financed the acquisition of the zograscope and the rest of the exhibit material at the mansion, which was built by Paca between 1763 and 1765. Although Deutsch would not estimate the cost of the exhibit, the society has raised $100,000 in the past three years to fund this exhibit and other programs.

While the zograscope represents Paca's chief diversion in the room, the mahogany embroidery frame resting on another table represents that of his wife, Mary. Deutsch received permission from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation to commission a copy of the embroidery frame in its collection.

Mary Paca's table holds another uncommon find: a chatelaine and etui, a small metal holder that attached to a woman's belt. The etui, which dates from 1755, held steel scissors, an ear scoop, tweezers, a penknife and a two-page aide memoire, or notepad, with its original pencil. The note scribbled on the page, unfortunately, is smudged and illegible.

A chair near the table holds a house of cards, a common playtime activity for children. Nearby rests a basket with nine wooden bowling-style pins.

The Pacas had several children, who might have played ninepins. A daughter, Henrietta Maria, was born about 1765. Mary's niece, Henrietta Maria Dorsey, also lived with the family about that time. The Pacas later had sons, John Philemon in 1771 and William Jr. in 1774.

Deutsch worked with a textile consultant to get period, brown linen rollup shades for the windows and the appropriate patterned chintz slipcovers for the chairs. She helped buy a green floor covering to protect the wood floor. The floor covering, which resembles vinyl, actually is linen treated with linseed oil, layers of paint and wax. The covering was popular at the time, Deutsch said.

Paca, a young lawyer who became one of four Declaration of Independence signers from Maryland, sold the house in 1780. The property changed hands many times in the 19th century before falling into disrepair. The Historic Annapolis Foundation saved the home from demolition in 1965.

Since then, the foundation has sought to acquire museum-quality furnishings, including Paca family silver and ceramics. The foundation finished a kitchen renovation last year and is preparing a makeover of the dining room.

Deutsch plans to hire a team of consultants to work on wall and floor coverings for the room. She is looking for London-made silver dating to the 1760s and unusual tableware, such as a ventilated container that would allow air to flow around fruit brought to the table.

Deutsch's focus is to re-create the Paca family's life in the home.

"The thing that is more lasting is how did they live in this house," she said. "It's a story you can connect with."

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