If blood stained the floor of Henry and Anne Saunders' parlor, the years scrubbed it away long ago.
The elaborately paneled room must have been a symbol of the Saunderses' growing affluence when they moved in during 1797. What happened between that day and the black moment in 1808 when he murdered her? Was he bowed under the mortgages he'd taken to build his fine house in Isle of Wight County, Va.? Was he a man who beat his slaves and abused his wife? Only echoes of their lives can be heard from the lattice balustrade of the staircase.
The Saunderses' parlor forms part of a newly installed permanent hall, "After the Revolution: Everyday Life in America, 1780-1800," opening Monday at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. If the National Gallery of Art's "Treasure Houses of Britain" is "the greatest gallery show ever," the 1,225-object "After the Revolution" exhibit aims to be "the best museum show," says museum director Roger Kennedy. "We spent lots more on the research than on the installation. The ideas arranged the objects."
The 10,000-square-foot hall gives a glimpse of the lives of three families who lived in the houses partially recreated here; and a freed slave is represented by the pews from the church he founded. The hall takes a briefer glance at the Seneca Indian Nation of the Iroquois Confederacy; the Afro-American culture of the Chesapeake area, and Philadelphia.
In the 1790s log house from New Castle County, Del., the visitor can almost see Elizabeth Springer rocking baby Anne's cradle with her foot while she poured tea for guests sitting in her wonderful set of six Windsor chairs. The whitewashed chinked logs formed a single room, so the bedroom, the china cupboard, the chest, all the family's best possessions are gathered here, to be warmed by the big fireplace.
No one knows for sure if Samuel Colton of Longmeadow, Mass., actually built the fine Palladian room with pilasters, pediments and even a real landscape painting over the fireplace. He and his family -- "in great fear and terr'r" -- may have stayed in this room, drinking rum, barring the door, staying clear of the windows the night his neighbors took the law into their own hands and broke into his store, a lean-to on the house.
Colton had been called "Tory" because he wouldn't accept Continental Congress paper money and said his neighbors were "liberty mad." He had raised the prices on his West Indian imports of rum, sugar and molasses, and refused to lower them when the local revolutionary committee told him to. So one night, a crowd of Longmeadow citizens broke into his store, took the West Indian goods to the town clerk to be sold at "reasonable prices" and gave the proceeds back to Colton.
Colton's two wives lived much like their neighbors. Flavia was 18 years old and eight months pregnant when they were married in 1756. Historian Barbara Clark Smith says that in some New England towns, two-thirds of the brides were pregnant. Flavia lived only three more years. Colton must have loved her because he named one of his daughters by his second wife after her. That wife, Lucy, became a widow at 42 and took over the store. Goods much like she once sold -- china, belt buckles from England and woven goods -- are displayed in packing boxes. Well-to-do widows, Smith said, were almost the only women to have much in the way of rights.
Richard Allen, a freed slave, was born as a chattel of the Benjamin Chew family in Philadelphia, who built Cliveden, a fine house that still stands today. But Chew lost his money, partly from his Tory sympathies, and sold Allen and his family down the river to Stokeley Sturgis in Little Creek Hundred, near Dover, Del. Eventually, Allen became a Methodist and himself a preacher at revival meetings. Among his converts was Sturgis, who told Allen and his brother they could buy their freedom and even gave them time to work for other people to earn their purchase price.
Allen became an itinerant preacher, living off converts as he went from town to village. Methodist churches then opposed slavery and applauded black religious leaders. In 1786, he came back to Philadelphia, where of the 1,630 blacks, all but 210 were free. Then blacks worshiped in the Anglican churches, but Allen thought they would be better treated in their own. He established the Free African Society and eventually the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in a blacksmith shop with 100 members.
A Raphaelle Peale painting of Allen's fellow preacher, Absalom Jones, shows him as a dignified older man. In a pastel drawing, Allen seems sterner, less inclined to negotiation. In the exhibit, his church's moaner's bench is one of three pews lent by the Bethel church.
Bits and pieces from three other communities are included in the show.
From the Seneca Indians came wampum belts, given by the Iroquois to mark important occasions, such as treaties, deaths or pronouncements, and silver gorgets, a kind of necklace and badge of position and friendship given important Indians by the Europeans. A 1797 Charles Willson Peale portrait of Joseph Brant, with his sister among the most influential 18th-century Iroquois, shows a face of beauty and power.
A portrait of 100-year-old Yarrow Mamout, a Moslem slave from Georgetown, also painted by Charles Willson Peale, is an unforgettable face from the section on the Afro-American community in the Chesapeake. Drums and fiddles and a great embroidered robe show the richness of the culture from which the blacks came.
Philadelphia is remembered in the tools of its mechanics and other skilled workers. Benjamin Franklin in 1788 claimed that God was not only a mechanic but a Republican and a commoner: "God Almighty is himself a Mechanic, the greatest in the Universe; and he is respected and admired more for the Variety, Ingenuity, and Utility of his Handiworks, than from the Antiquity of his family."
Medicines in antique bottles and surgeons instruments mark Philadelphia's yellow fever epidemic of 1793. Blacks were the principal nurses during the plague, when many whites fled the town. Most blacks didn't have money to leave and were mistakenly believed to be immune to the fever.
The Tavern, where 18th-century puppet shows and musicians will perform twice or so a month, can also be used eventually for craft demonstrations and clogging dances. Roger Kennedy had originally hoped the Saunders house could be used as the stage for a short (five or so minutes) drama about a slave buying his freedom. But so far, funding has not been found.
"The Hands on History" room has reproduction printing presses to work and objects such as cloth to touch. Two study galleries of clothing and British ceramics will have changing exhibits. A great Conestoga wagon, ready to head west, winds up the show.
As the visitor begins the show, a case holds artifacts marking the great events of life, pointing out both how life has changed in these 200 years and how it's remained the same. A yellow brocaded wedding dress was made from fabric bought in London for a beloved daughter. A cradle, from Maryland or Pennsylvania, is left empty in memorial to all those babies who hardly lived long enough to be rocked. A christening dress, carefully embroidered in 1797 for a longed-for baby named Nathan Fhyno Smith, celebrated a sturdier child.
The exhibit hall aims at making viewers travel in time, live in their imagination in these two decades. The museum-goer can best enter these dramatic decades by seeing the show after reading the book "After the Revolution: The Smithsonian History of Everyday Life in the Eighteenth Century" (Pantheon Books, 256 pp., $24.95) written by Barbara Clark Smith. Her genius is in breaking down history's glittering generalities into the specific lives of individuals.