John Adams to Abigail Adams
Philadelphia May 10. 1777
The Day before Yesterday, I took a Walk, with my Friend Whipple to Mrs. Wells’s, the Sister of the famous Mrs. Wright, to see her Waxwork.1 She has two Chambers filled with it. In one, the Parable of the Prodigal Son, is represented. The Prodigal is prostrate on his Knees, before his Father, whose Joy, and Grief, and Compassion all appear in his Eyes and Face, struggling with each other. A servant Maid, at the Fathers command, is pulling down from a Closet Shelf, the choicest Robes, to cloath the Prodigal, who is all in Rags. At an outward Door, in a Corner of the Room stands the elder Brother, chagrined at this Festivity, a Servant coaxing him to come in. A large Number of Guests, are placed round the Room. In another Chamber, are the Figures of Chatham, Franklin, Sawbridge, Mrs. Maccaulay, and several others. At a Corner is a Miser, sitting at his Table, weighing his Gold, his Bag upon one Side of the Table, and a Thief behind him, endeavouring to pilfer the Bag.
There is Genius, as well as Taste and Art, discovered in this Exhibition: But I must confess, the whole Scaene was disagreable to me. The Imitation of Life was too faint, and I seemed to be walking among a Group of Corps’s, standing, sitting, and walking, laughing, singing, crying, and weeping. This Art I think will make but little Progress in the World.
Another Historical Piece I forgot, which is Elisha, restoring to Life the Shunamite’s Son. The Joy of the Mother, upon Discerning the first Symptoms of Life in the Child, is pretty strongly expressed.
Dr. Chevots Waxwork, in which all the various Parts of the human Body are represented, for the Benefit of young Students in Anatomy and of which I gave you a particular Description, a Year or two ago, were much more pleasing to me. Wax is much fitter to represent dead Bodies, than living ones.2
Upon a Hint, from one of our Commissioners abroad, We are looking about for American Curiosities, to send across the Atlantic as presents to the Ladies.3 Mr. Rittenhouse’s Planetarium, Mr. Arnolds Collection of Rareties in the Virtuoso Way, which I once saw at Norwalk in Connecticutt,4 Narragansett Pacing Mares, Mooses, Wood ducks, Flying Squirrells, Redwinged Black birds, Cramberries, and Rattlesnakes have all been thought of.5
Is not this a pretty Employment for great Statesmen, as We think ourselves to be? Frivolous as it seems, it may be of some Consequence. Little Attentions have great Influence. I think, however, We ought to consult the Ladies upon this Point. Pray what is your Opinion?6
RC and LbC (Adams Papers). LbC is entered in Lb/JA/3 as two separate letters, the first ending with JA’s remarks on Dr. Chovet’s anatomical waxworks, and the second containing only the two final paragraphs as found in RC, on “American Curiosities.” Datelines in RC and both LbC entries originally read “April 10.,” but the month was corrected to May by overwriting in all three.
1. Patience (Lovell) Wright (1725–1786), by origin a New Jersey Quaker, gained celebrity as a modeler in wax and has been called the first American sculptor. The Adams ladies were to encounter her in London in the 1780’s and to write about her with less than complete admiration. See DAB description begins Allen Johnson and Dumas Malone, eds., Dictionary of American Biography, New York, 1928–1936; 20 vols. plus index and supplements. description ends ; Groce and Wallace, Dict. Amer. Artists description begins George C. Groce and David H. Wallace, The New-York Historical Society’s Dictionary of American Artists, 1564–1860, New Haven and London, 1957. description ends ; JA, Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:165, with references there. Mrs. Wright’s sister, Rachel (Lovell) Wells, was also a modeler in wax, but none of her work is known to survive (Ethel Stanwood Bolton, American Wax Portraits, Boston and N.Y., 1929, p. 22, 61). It seems likely that the collection JA viewed included pieces executed by both sisters.
2. The anatomical waxworks executed by Dr. Abraham Chovet (1704–1790) were among the principal scientific attractions of Philadelphia at this period. JA was apparently mistaken in supposing that he had described them in an earlier letter to AA, but he had given some account of them in his diary entry for 14 Oct. 1774 (Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 2:152).
3. See Silas Deane’s letters to the Committee of Secret Correspondence, 28 Nov. 1776, and to John Jay, 3 Dec. 1776, respectively, in Wharton, ed., Dipl. Corr. Amer. Rev. description begins Francis Wharton, ed., The Revolutionary Diplomatic Correspondence of the United States, Washington, 1889; 6 vols. description ends , 2:200, 214. Deane’s own list of suggestions in the latter is engaging:
“I must mention some trifles. The queen is fond of parade, and I believe wishes a war, and is our friend. She loves riding on horseback. Could you send me a narrowhegansett horse or two; the present might be money exceedingly well laid out. Rittenhouse’s orrery, or Arnold’s collection of insects, a phaeton of American make and a pair of bay horses, a few barrels of apples, of walnuts, of butternuts, etc., would be great curiosities here, where everything American is gazed at, and where the American contest engages the attention of all ages, ranks, and sexes.”
4. JA saw this natural history collection in the summer of 1774 when on his way to the first Continental Congress, and he afterward found it incorporated in Sir Ashton Lever’s private museum in Leicester House, London; see Diary and Autobiography description begins Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield and others, Cambridge, 1961; 4 vols. description ends , 3:151.
5. In LbC JA did not at first list two of the items as here given but then immediately added: “And why should not Moose’s and Rattlesnakes!”
6. JA began an additional paragraph in RC, but then rubbed it out: “We have at last accom. . . .” See the beginning of the following letter.