Museum of Early Trades and Crafts: A Madison Treasure

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When my kids were in preschool, we'd spend many a rainy afternoon in the basement of the beautiful Museum of Early Trades and Crafts, in downtown Madison. They would play for hours in the kids pretend play area, trying on the aprons and bonnets, pretending to cook a hearty stew with the plastic vegetables in the heavy iron pot, and playing with the old-time wooded toys and puzzles. Each March, they'd take a stuffed animal to join in the annual Stuffed Animal Sleepover. They'd read them bedtime stories, then tuck them into bed, and leave them to enjoy their special sleepover with fellow stuffed friends. The next day, we'd return to hear of the mischief they got up to overnight. We still have our photo of Elmo drawing on the slate chalkboard and Dot Dog hanging from the chandelier. Both stuffed animals needed a talking to when we returned home! (Mark your calendar for the next Stuffed Animal Sleepover on March 23, 2018 from 4-5pm. Registration required.)

When my kids were each in second grade, their class took a field trip to METC. Since both the museum and their school are in downtown Madison, part of their experience was actually walking from one to the other. I was fortunate to be the Class Parent each of those years, so I was able to go, too. The program was excellent! They started with a great introduction to the history of the building and the building itself. The educator pointed out the special stained glass seals of the first seven colleges in America, in addition to the features of the building that remain from the days it was a library, such as the metal book shelves and shelf markers. They then each received a card with the name of a community member, such as baker, miller, cooper, tanner, apothecary, or teacher. The educator guided them to create a community web to show how communities often start with a farmer, but then grow to include additional tradespeople who depend on one another. They completed their tour by pretending they were an apprentice to a tinsmith as they created their own punched-tin craft.

When my parents visited recently, our family spent a wonderful afternoon at the museum, looking at the collections of objects from New Jersey in the 18th and 19th centuries. My mom, who spent much of her childhood in the early 1940s in Scotland, reminisced about several of the objects that were similar to what her grandparents used when she was young. My kids loved hearing her memory of her grandmother keeping one iron in the fire to get warm while she used the other iron to press shirts, then switched them.

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My mother-in-law, who loved art and architecture, always admired the beauty of the building and stained glass. While many people confuse it for a church (and, in fact, several out-of-towners have come through the doors wearing suits and formal dresses, mistaking it for St. Vincent Martyr Church), the incredible building was never a church. It opened in 1900 as the town's first free public library. The wall inscriptions and stained glass are not of a religious theme, but of learning, knowledge, and books. It was the town library until the Keep Street library was built in the late 1960s. Since 1970, it has been the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts. Much of the building's architectural features and stained glass were covered during the early years of the museum, but they were revealed once again since the renovations in the mid-1990s.

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While the main focus of the museum is the crafts and trades of the 18th and 19th century in New Jersey, the museum takes great pride in making sure that as much of the history directly relates to Madison. Several of the objects, such as the cider jug and the cabinetmaker tools, have Madison roots. The featured cabinetmaker, Caleb Burroughs, was the founder in 1820 of the Burroughs, Kohr, & Dangler Funeral Home that has been in its location on Main Street for almost two centuries. A few years ago, the museum was contacted by the family, who donated a sketch of Mr. Burroughs to be included in the exhibit.

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Additional pieces are constantly being added to the collection. One local family found nineteenth century shoes behind the walls of their historic Madison home during a renovation. Hiding shoes within the walls (possibly for good luck) dates back several centuries in Western Europe, and was done by many early settlers in America.  The family donated the shoes to the METC permanent collection.

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The permanent collection of the METC, some of which is shown on the lower level, and also the right wing of the main level, include many other fascinating objects that depict the early trades and crafts, but also every-day life. One of my favorite features of the exhibits is how interactive and interesting they make it for people of all ages. While you shouldn't handle most of the objects, there are several drawers below many of the displays that contain similar authentic and recreated artifacts that you can touch. Below the doll clothes display, kids can open the drawer and play with a hand-made rag doll. Below the knitting display is a bowl of flax (used to make linen cloth) and lace pieces. Below the housewares display, you can pick up a butter paddle and candle molds.

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The current exhibit, Spark: The Explosive and Dirty History of Light, which is in the left side of the building and is open through February 23, 2018, also features some tactile sections that are very appealing to young and older hands alike. Three objects sit on a table with a sign "What is it?" and "Please feel free to touch!" I won't reveal the uses of these objects and how they relate to light, since you need to figure that out for yourself. Let's just way, one in particular, is very tricky, and clever! The next table over has an interactive electric circuit board you can assemble to make a bulb glow. Be sure to also head over to the old vault where you can step inside to get a feel for what life was like before electric lights. A few battery-operated simulated candles glow alongside an old newspaper and puzzle so you can see what it was like to read and play games by candlelight.

The rest of the Spark exhibit tells the dirty and sometimes explosive story of light from the 18th and 19th century. From candles to whale oil to explosive camphene to electric lightbulbs, the objects they have compiled lead you though the history of artificial light. I especially loved seeing the old oil lamps that were retrofitted to use "modern" electric bulbs. The enormous hearth in the room holds a beautiful display on candlemaking.

There are many upcoming events, several of which are based on the current exhibit on light, including a 2-hour session for kids during Teacher Convention break (Nov. 9), family crafting events, and lectures for adults. In addition, on Thursday, November 16, 2017, there is a lecture and cocktail reception for adults. For more information on all the METC events, click here.

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As you leave the museum, you pass through a beautiful gift shop filled with unique and intriguing items that relate to current or past exhibits, or to the time period of the museum. You can purchase locally-made hand soaps, goat milk lotions, ceramic candle holders, and bees wax candles. In addition, there are fabric roses made exclusively for METC using techniques and tools similar to the historic ones on display at the museum. One of my favorite pieces is the wood block cut and painted as the METC, with a history of the museum written on the back. I've gathered many unique stocking stuffers at the museum over the years, including spinning tops, chalkboards, tin whistles, and rag dolls.  Each time I walk down the stone steps to leave METC, I think about all the generations that have visited the beautiful site. From the long-time Madison residents who recall the days when it was the town's first public library, to the school groups from near and far who come to learn about what life was like more then 100 years ago, every person who enters the doors will find what a unique treasure we have here in Madison in the METC.

The Museum of Early Trades and Crafts is located at 9 Main Street, Madison, NJ. It is open Tues-Sat 10am-4pm, and Sunday, noon to 5pm. Closed Mondays and major holidays. In July and August, closed Sundays and Mondays. Admission is $5 for adults; $3 for students, children, and seniors 62+; $15 family maximum; free for members and children under 6; $8 for guided tours (by appt.). In addition, there are programs for schools (visit the museum, or an educator can come to your school), adults and senior groups, and scouts. (Click here for program details.) For more information, call 973-377-2982, or visit www.metc.org