The Windows Remember

From time to time my job leads me to local museums and historic sites. It’s a great gig for a museum junky like myself. And, better yet, I occasionally get to see stuff that doesn’t turn up on the usual tours. Take, for example, this amazing window that I discovered (thanks, Blanche) on a recent visit to Cliveden (rhymes with “lived in”), a National Trust historic site north of downtown Philly in Germantown, PA. For nearly two centuries, Cliveden’s owners encouraged their guests to “sign” the building’s windows with a diamond scribe. Look closely and, in just this single pane, you’ll find nearly one hundred and thirty years worth of names, dates, and well wishes. The window is a guest book in glass, the result of a charming tradition that literally etched family friends into Cliveden’s memory.

Folks who, like myself, spend a lot of time doing history with things know full well that objects seldom speak so clearly of their pasts. This window owes its remarkable prolixity to Benjamin Chew and his progeny. Chew, a lapsed Quaker who made big money managing the Penn family’s legal affairs, built Cliveden as a summer home in the 1760s. The house is most famous for sheltering a handful of British soldiers who, garrisoned behind the building’s three-foot thick stone walls, managed to stall General Washington’s advance toward Philadelphia in October 1777 during the Battle of Germantown. Chew sold the place after the Revolution, but reacquired it shortly before his death. The home passed from generation to generation until 1972 when the Chew family presented Cliveden to the National Trust. That they did speaks strongly to the family’s awareness of its own significant historical legacy.

Cliveden’s windows are, in this light, striking evidence of one family’s desire to commemorate itself. And what a striking commemoration it is. To look through this window is to see one’s self reflected in the deep memory of a building, and a landscape beyond, that witnessed the unfolding of our national story. And, at the same time, the window is itself a unique kind of historic text. It chronicles the comings and goings of some of this country’s most prominent people over a remarkable span of time. The absence of less prominent names reminds us that not even objects have perfect memories. In any event, much could be made of this by a historian with an ear for objects. How one footnotes a window is another matter entirely.