Iconic photos of a changing city, and commentary on our Collections & Exhibitions from the crew at MCNY.org
King began his political career in Massachusetts, serving as a delegate to the Continental Congress and later as a framer and signer of the U.S. Constitution in 1787. He moved to New York City shortly thereafter, and was elected to represent New York in the United States Senate in 1789, serving until 1796.
King married Mary Alsop in 1786, daughter of John Alsop, a prominent New Yorker, and also a delegate to the Continental Congress. In 1788, their first son, John Alsop King, was born in New York City. Rufus and Mary went on to have seven children, though only five survived beyond early childhood.
In 1796, President Washington appointed King Minister to Great Britain, a post he held until 1803. Following his return to New York, King sought a living situation that resembled the one he had in England, where he spent time living in both the country and the city. He acquired rural property in Jamaica, Long Island (a neighborhood located in the current day borough of Queens, New York) in 1805, seeking the health benefits, open space, and distance from political life offered by a more remote property. The map below shows property in Jamaica as it was parceled up into lots for auction, nearly 100 years after King acquired his home and lands just to the north.
King ran unsuccessfully for the Vice Presidency in 1804 and 1808; and served as a founding member of the New-York Historical Society and a trustee of both Columbia College and Jamaica’s Union Hall Academy. From 1813-1824 King served again as New York’s U.S. Senator, and unsuccessfully ran for President in 1816. In 1825, President John Quincy Adams reappointed him Minister to Great Britain, but King returned to New York the following year, due to failing health and died in 1827. Mary had died in 1819, and both she and Rufus are buried in the Grace Episcopal Churchyard just a block from King Manor.
I recently had an opportunity to explore King’s past when researching a traveling medicine case in the Museum’s collection that belonged to Rufus King and was donated to the Museum in 1941 by the estate of Gherardi Davis in memory of his wife, Alice King Davis, Rufus King’s great-granddaughter. The case was originally produced and distributed by Richard Reece’s Medical Hall, London, but includes bottles refilled by a local Jamaica apothecary, John S. Seabury. Disease as a result of overcrowding was a constant threat to early New Yorkers. By the time the Kings moved to the property in Jamaica, they had already lost two of their children, and we assume it was one of the reasons they selected the rural location.
Not only does King’s medicine chest serve as an important cultural and historical artifact through its connection to one of early New York’s most prominent statesmen; the piece provides further testament to the story of disease in the emerging city. This object is one of the many treasures from the collection under consideration for inclusion in the Museum’s upcoming exhibition New York at Its Core, a major, multi-media long-term exhibition on the city’s 400 year history, which will open in the Fall of 2016 in all galleries on the first floor, following completion of the renovation of our landmarked building. In anticipation of the object’s inclusion in New York at Its Core, the Museum will be conserving this object. The bottles and drawers contain remnants of medicines, herbal remedies, and salves, and the inherent vice of these materials are the source of much of the damage over the years. As a “traveling” medical case, it was prone to damage from bumps and jostles as it was carried on King’s early 19th century journeys, and as a result, all aspects of this object—from case construction to the individual components—require the attention of a professional conservator for cleaning, stabilization, and repair. The case will receive a range of treatments, including cleaning surfaces, stabilizing moveable components, re-adhering labels, repairing cracked bottles, and sealing bottles with paraffin wax to prevent the creep of the their contents. We look forward to the opportunity to exhibit the newly conserved case in New York at Its Core.
Addendum: The Museum learned in June, 2015, that our application for a grant to conserve this medicine case was successful. We are thankful to the Conservation Treatment Grant Program of the Greater Hudson Heritage Network, which is made possible with public funds from the New York State Council on the Arts, a state agency.