On a Soap Box
Lea C. Lane, Curator of Collections
The Preservation Virginia mission statement singles out “historic places of memory.” A historic place of memory might be architectural, but it can also be something that fits in the palm of our hand. Sometimes the most vital connections to our past are packaged in things small and familiar. It’s the reason we save family heirlooms. It’s the reason we delight in the most mundane survivors of time. It’s why I delight in soap.
Soap, as we appreciate perhaps now more than ever, is ephemeral. It serves a critical purpose, then it disappears down the drain. Yet in the Preservation Virginia collection are three fragments of soap, each carefully labeled with an accession number. I had to laugh when I came across these a few months ago during my first visit to the John Marshall House as the new curator of collections. “I’m the curator of soap!” I proclaimed to a colleague, who joined in my giggles. Like many of the mundane survivors of time, however, these fragments weren’t saved because of what they are, but because of whose they were. In this case, they were part of Chief Justice John Marshall’s shaving kit.
The early minutes of A.P.V.A are filled with little fragments like these, things that might be more accurately described as relics, saved for their associations rather than intrinsic value. The John Marshall House, thanks to the generosity of generations of donors, is full of relics. Perhaps the most stunning is the only surviving judicial robe of the Chief Justice himself, which was donated by a descendant to the organization in 1929. The robe has been admired by thousands of visitors since that time, but time spent in the limelight has been hard on this fragile silk garment. It now rests in an archival box, ready for a journey to the lab of conservator Howard Sutcliffe. Once treated, the robe will be housed in a protective case, ready to be shared with future generations of Americans.
Like the bits of soap, it’s a remarkable survival. Like the soap, it can disappear if we don’t work together to preserve it. If you are interested in learning more about this project, I invite you to check out our website, www.savetherobe.com, and consider supporting our efforts to save something that is far from mundane. Once this time of uncertainty has passed, come visit us at the John Marshall House, and be sure to ask to see his soap!