To tame the beast -- it's an impulse experienced by almost anyone who has ever caught fireflies in a jar, nursed a wounded bird or wanted to adopt a sprightly fawn or backyard rabbit. At Darnall's Chance House Museum, the exhibition "Man's Best Friends: Colonial Americans and Their Pets, 1700-1800" captures humans' timeless desire for the companionship of animals, as well as the spirit and peculiarities of early American life.
Built in the 1742 by Scottish merchant James Wardrop, the house stands as a reminder of Upper Marlboro's rich history as a Colonial port town on the Patuxent River. The new exhibition points out that Colonial Americans sometimes kept quirky company. There are records and paintings of people domesticating (or at least trying to domesticate) beavers, deer, rabbits, squirrels and monkeys. One painting shows a 1-year-old girl named Mary with her arm around a woolly sheep -- Mary indeed had a little lamb. The painting "John Carroll of Annapolis" shows a pet deer posing next to the young grandson of Col. Henry Darnall. John Carroll grew up to be the father of Declaration of Independence signer Charles Carroll.
Housed in two first-floor rooms, "Man's Best Friends" features the accouterments of the era's pampered pets, such as a brass dog collar and ladies' sidesaddle. Taxidermists' handiwork captures some wild critters of the 1700s -- songbirds and a squirrel, beaver and rabbit.
The exhibition describes pets that once lived in the house. A reproduction of "The Singing Bird," a print by R. Sawyer, shows Wardrop's wife, Lettice Lee, sitting in a chair gazing at a feathered friend in a cage. Elsewhere it is noted that her wealthy husband once owned 14 horses, some for hunting, some for pulling carriages. Wardrop's famous friend George Washington poses with his steed in one painting. There's also a portrait of Eleanor Calvert, who later married George Washington's stepson, John Parks Custis; in the picture, she's cradling her pet bird.
In another painting, a goldfish bowl rests on Wardrop's desk. Two young boys (in dresses, which were customary for children of both sexes at the time) pose in a painting with their pet squirrel on a leash. A brown and white pet dog sits placidly next to Eleanor Darnall (who would become the mother of a different John Carroll: Archbishop John Carroll, the founder of Georgetown University) in a 1710 painting reproduced in the exhibition.
Although accompanying plaques are packed with amusing anecdotes and poetry (including one titled "Ode on the Death of a Favorite Cat Drowned in a Tub of Goldfish"), young visitors may learn more from a tour guide.
Recently, Susan Reidy, the museum director, hosted children visiting from a summer camp. After they sat on the floor, she started asking questions: "Who has a pet at home?" "Me! Me!" they yelled. Reidy continued: "When was the 18th century?" "What is this animal?" She asked the kids if they'd like to have a beaver for a pet, pointing to a large stuffed beaver in the center of one of the rooms (evidently a highlight for the young visitors).
"No!" they shouted.
They chew wood, one child said.
"He'd eat your furniture, right?" Reidy responded.
Beyond the exhibition, the house is decorated and furnished to reflect its appearance in the 1740s, when Wardrop married Lettice Lee, who lived there from 1748 to 1776. Married three times and twice widowed, she was from the powerful Lee family of Virginia and an acquaintance of George and Martha Washington. (The first president once referred to her in a letter as "this fair lady," which was the name of the museum's exhibition last summer.)
For the price of admission, visitors can tour "Man's Best Friends," as well as the house, accompanied by a knowledgeable staff member. On a quiet Sunday, historian Barbara Sikora spoke of an intriguing discovery: a backyard burial vault found by archaeologists in 1990. Nine skeletons lay beneath a heap of trash; one is believed to be the remains of Lettice Lee. Others appeared to be the bones of some of her 19 siblings and of children (child mortality was very high in the 1800s). One advantage of the museum's personal touch is that visitors can hear about life and death in the house, with gruesome, fascinating details about DNA matches and contaminated teeth.
For a more cheerful look at the past, though, the pet exhibition fills the bill. There's even a feel-good reason to see it: One dollar from every admission goes to the Partnership for Animal Welfare (PAW), a nonprofit Greenbelt-based animal rescue and adoption group. And for the exhibition's final touch, visitors are encouraged to bring photos of their own pets to add to the "Paws of Fame" gallery, thereby linking three centuries of Americans and their pets.
"Man's Best Friends: Colonial Americans and Their Pets, 1700-1800" is open through Aug. 31 at Darnall's Chance House Museum, 14800 Governor Oden Bowie Dr., Upper Marlboro. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays, noon to 4 p.m. Sundays and by appointment Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Admission is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors and $2 for ages 5-18. 301-952-8010.