Cabinet of Curiosity

The cabinet of curiosities or curio cabinets emerged in Europe during the 16th-century as rooms or areas in private homes filled with rare treasures and fine paintings.We invite you to take a step back in time and take a peek inside Tryon Palace’s Cabinet of Curiosity! 


The cabinet of curiosities or curio cabinets emerged in Europe during the 16th-century. Originally known as Kunst-und Wunderkammer these rooms or areas in private homes were filled with rare treasures and fine paintings. By the Enlightenment the cabinets of curiosity had spread to the American colonies, and were no longer limited to artwork. By the 18th-century natural history and ethnology became increasingly popular areas of collection. Thomas Jefferson kept several curio cabinets at Monticello, dedicated to the fine arts, natural history, ethnological artifacts, and human innovation. Curio cabinets remained popular throughout the 19th-century. The display of large collections grouped by like items fit well with the Victorian aesthetic and gradually more families began displaying their collections of taxidermy specimens from exotic hunts, rare figurines from travels in Asia, or historic family artifacts owned by Revolutionary War heroes. By the 20th-century curio cabinets had become traditional home furnishings used to display fine china, their original purpose largely lost. The first museums in the United States open to the public looked like large curio cabinets. Rooms were filled to bursting with different objects each carefully labeled and shelves in an overwhelming barrage of art, history, and science. While museums have moved away from these types of displays in order to provide visitors with a higher quality, and less overwhelming experience, their collections still contain the many odd pieces that were once a part of those displays. We invite you to take a step back in time and take a peek inside Tryon Palace’s Cabinet of Curiosity! 

Powder Horn, Unknown, circa 1800, From the collection of: Tryon Palace
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Edmund Ruffin Beckwith (1890-1949) was a New York City lawyer who conducted extensive research on his ancestor John Wright Stanly (1742-1789), the merchant and Revolutionary War patriot of New Bern, N.C. Beckwith likely acquired the powder horn under the belief that it was used by Stanly during the Revolution. As a means of commemorating his ancestor Beckwith had the ends of the powder horn plated in silver and engraved with John Wright Stanly’s birth and death dates. After Beckwith’s passing his birth and death dates were added as a testament to his familial connection with Stanly.

Chinese Figurines Chinese Figurines, Unknown, circa 1750, From the collection of: Tryon Palace
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Foo dogs also known as lion dogs are guardian figures which first appeared during the Han dynasty in China. The two figures, male and female, representing yang and yin respectively, guarded the entrances to imperial palaces, tombs, government buildings, and the houses of wealthy families. The male figure has a ball or sphere beneath his paw representing supremacy over the world, while the female traditionally has a cub beneath her paw. By the 18th-century, with the introduction of new materials, smaller pairs became available to a wider audience. This pair features a sancai glaze, denoted by the green, yellow and eggplant coloring; along with moveable eyes.

Hooded Merganser, Unknown, Mid-Late Twentieth Century, From the collection of: Tryon Palace
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The male hooded merganser (lophodytes cucullatus) is easily identified by the prominent black hood of feathers and white breast. These small ducks can be found year round in small fresh water ponds and rivers around North Carolina. They consume small fish, cray fish, and other materials while nesting in hollows of nearby trees. Waterfowl hunting rose in popularity from 1890 through 1920. In 1918 the first legislation was put into effect to limit hunting.

Tinder Lighter, Unknown, late 18th to early 19th century, From the collection of: Tryon Palace
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A flint and steel were the most common method of lighting a candle in the late-18th, early 19th-century. The flint was struck sharply against a piece of metal to create sparks, lighting a small piece of tinder. This pistol-shaped flint-lock tinder lighter is modeled after a flint-lock pistol, but instead of a barrel, it has a small tinder box and candle holder. A luxury item, this style of tinder lighter would have been found in wealthy homes.

Candlestick, Unknown, circa 1640, From the collection of: Tryon Palace
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In the 16th and 17th centuries candles were typically made from either tallow or beeswax. The clean burning and sweet smelling beeswax candles were expensive, and as a result used only by the wealthy and on special occasions. The majority of people used tallow candles; made from animal fat these candles were smoky, produced an unpleasant odor, and only burned for a short period of time. To mitigate the dangers of these candles different candlestick designs were developed. The most popular included a prick or metal spike that supported the candle, and a base to securely hold the candlestick, while avoiding the burning candle. This candle stick is engraved with “1640” and is a rustic design that would have been used during the 17th century.

Miniature Book Press, Unknown, 19th century, From the collection of: Tryon Palace
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19th-century decorative nipping press for miniature books, made in Holland. The nipping press is commonly used during the book binding process to keep a completed book from wrapping while the glue dries. During the 18th-and 19th-centuries it was common for book press to be built onto tables and chests of drawers. This miniature book press repeats that pattern on a reduced scale, with the lower section constructed in the form of a 17th-century bombe chest of drawers with marquetry flowers.

Patent Model, Unknown, 19th Century, From the collection of: Tryon Palace
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Patent model, wooden case and gears, with metal fittings and some metal parts; function of device unknown. It was discovered in the basement of the Griffin Building (old New Bern high school) at the southwest corner of Johnson and Hancock Streets. Evidence suggests that it was purchased from Columbia University. Prior to 1877 the U.S. Patent Office required inventors to submit a patent model with their patent application. The models were used to verify the originality of the patent and displayed for the public. During the second half of the 19th-century there was a large increase in the number of patent applications. This, coupled with a fire in the building in 1877, lead them to drop the requirement. Some inventors continued to submit patent models but by 1900 the practice had largely been abandoned. Beginning in the early 20th-century the patent office began distributing its collection of patent models to museums and colleges, including Columbia University.

Credits: Story

Curatorial Team:
Richard Baker
Siobhan Fitzpatrick

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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