by Anne Motto, Curator of Collections
July 27, 2021
Ever come cross something you’ve never seen before, but after learning about it, suddenly it’s everywhere? Well, that was the Hoffmans for the staff of MCHS. Before a few weeks ago, the name held little significance. Then, in preparation for the conservation of our one-horse open sleigh (top photo), we delved into our records on its provenance. According to the accession file, the earliest known owner of the sleigh was one Margaret Hoffman of Madison Avenue, Morristown. Research quickly revealed that she was born there in 1899. She never married and lived with her mother, Louisa, on the family homestead until at least 1957. Her father was Samuel Verplanck Hoffman, an astronomer with a fondness for collecting astrolabes whose family had made their fortune in New York City real estate. All fascinating, but that should have been the end of our tale.
However, around the same time, we were also mining our collection for items to include in our current exhibit. A search of our collection management program for a purple 1880s wedding gown dug up a record for a dress worn by Margaret’s maternal grandmother to Samuel and Louisa’s 1895 wedding. Margaret’s brother, Eugene, had apparently made a small, but significant donation of family clothing and ephemera in 1974. Quite the coincidence, but surely that was the last we’d hear of them for a while. Nope! As it would turn out, the owner of the bicycling ensemble already earmarked for the exhibit was none other than Samuel Verplanck Hoffman, he of the astrolabe-collecting. It was starting to get weird, but oh, the Hoffmans were not done with us yet.
Yet another project underway at that time was improving the organization and documentation of our 19th century clothing. No more than a day or two after our last foray with the Hoffmans, we were photographing, updating the record of, and assigning a box number to a mid-to-late 1860s ball gown when we noticed that the donor was …you guessed it… Eugene Hoffman. The original wearer is unknown, but likely was his and Margaret’s maternal grandmother, Louisa Norwood Smith, as it was a bit too daring for their paternal grandmother, Mary Elmendorf Hoffman, wife of The Very Reverend Eugene Augustus Hoffman, D.D.
Thus, without even trying, we’d run into the Hoffmans four times in a span of perhaps two weeks after years (decades even) of them flying beneath our radar. Will we run into them again during future projects? At this point, we’d be surprised if we didn’t.