The journey of this hand-crafted Noah’s Ark toy began in the solitary confinement wing of Eastern State Penitentiary and ended under little Sadie Green’s Christmas Tree.
By the end of the 19th century, Noah’s Arks were one of the most popular toys in America. A jump in immigration to the United States brought with it a flourish of European crafts and imports including hand-carved, German-made Noah’s Arks toy sets. The deep religious beliefs of many early American families required strict adherence to the Sabbath. For many, this meant that on Sundays children could play only with Biblically-themed toys. Thus, Noah’s Ark toy sets surged in popularity across all cultural boundaries and cured the Sunday boredom of many late-19th century children.
This particular set is documented to have been made for Pennsylvania resident Sadie Green (1880-1956) by prisoners at the Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia, Pa. The ark was given to her as a Christmas present by her uncle, George Dorwart, who was probably an overseer at the prison at the time. He eventually became the penitentiary’s warden. The flat-bottomed design and stenciled painting of this ark suggests that it was made by prisoners of German heritage. The mass German migrations in the mid-to-late 19th century in America, about 950,000 in the 1850s and 1.5 million in the 1880s, combined with moves to America by other ethnic groups, resulted in growing pains for the relatively new nation. Many prisons in the United States became the home of a large percentage of first-and second-generation immigrants. From the 1830s until 1913, many inmates at Eastern State faced solitary confinement. These prisoners spent their days alone, interacting only with a moral instructor and other prison staff. Proponents of the solitary confinement regimen believed that only in this way would prisoners be removed from worldly, immoral influences and proceed through quiet reflection to personal repentance and reformation. Some inmates were given the opportunity to learn and practice a trade. In German craft tradition, ark-carving and ark-painting were considered two separate crafts, meaning that this ark may have been made by at least two people.
Accompanying this ark are 20 animals, most of which reflect common Pennsylvania farm livestock such as cattle and pigs, which would have been the simplest to construct. Animals were often fabricated from a single ring cut from a tree trunk and sliced into wedges, which would account for the flat appearance of the animals. Many of the animals are in a set, reflecting the Biblical narrative of loading each species of animal onto the ark “two-by-two”. Single animals suggest that some pieces have been lost. This ark was subsequently gifted by Sadie Green to her young niece, Frances Peters, who donated the ark to the State Museum in 1976.
Collections Advancement Project Curators Emily Church selected this toy as this week’s Pennsylvania Treasure.
About Pennsylvania Treasures:
In early 2012, The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission launched the Collections Advancement Project (CAP), a program to inventory and catalog our vast and significant holdings of art and artifacts. These efforts are resulting in better stewardship of our collections which represent Pennsylvania arts, culture, history, sciences, business and agriculture. As a component of the project, CAP curators have researched rarely exhibited artifacts and works of art. We are sharing these Pennsylvania Treasures with the public through weekly updates.