WILMINGTON, Del.—Michael J. Emmons Jr. stalks historical graffiti, the tags of time that might tell a story, rather than precious artifacts you would expect to interest a historian like him.
At Old Swedes Church in Wilmington, he is more fascinated by the 17th century wooden doors, pockmarked with hundreds of crudely carved sentiments, names, drawings and dates, than he is the black-walnut pulpit inside the 1698 church founded by Swedish settlers or its Bayard memorial stained-glass window, one of the first made by Tiffany.
They are lovely. But it’s these scratched words and pictures, so many that the surfaces are in danger of looking more like big wooden school notebooks than entrances to a church – that command Emmons’ attention.
“It’s kind of a poignant thing to encounter, when you see these signs people left you a couple of hundred years ago,” Emmons says. “Just on an emotional level, I think it’s fun to find them.
“On a scholarly level, these things are telling us a lot that can help us understand American history, help us understand architectural history and how they used buildings, what they tried to say with their buildings. It helps us understand how people related to things, the material world and their experiences in dwellings and churches. It helps us better understand people and society and their culture.”
Emmons may not have Indiana Jones’ fedora and whip, but he’s is a treasure hunter just the same. His gems and jewels, though, come in the form of historical markings on old buildings, whether it’s a formal cornerstone, a builder’s mark, etchings in stone, wood or glass—or all manner of writing and carving.
He plans to write his dissertation for his doctorate in preservation studies on the topic of historical graffiti, focusing on buildings in and around Delaware. There’s shockingly little scholarship on the topic, Emmons says.
“Michael Emmons is doing unique work decoding graffiti that people might not even notice in historic buildings, insights into American history left by the ‘grass roots’ people rather than the famous and celebrated,” says Dr. Joyce Hill Stoner, who is the Edward F. and Elizabeth Goodman Rosenberg Professor of Material Culture Director of the UD’s Preservation Studies Doctoral Program. She’s also a paintings conservator in the Winterthur/UD program in art conservation.
“It might be markings in a one-room school left as comments by students, or drawings made on the walls by prisoners while they were incarcerated or by Civil War soldiers in hiding,” Stoner says. “Others could be drawings of ships scratched into a chest that was located near a window with a view of the sea – during the time that sea travel and dangers of the sea preyed on everyone’s minds.”
What he’s ultimately doing, she says, is learning how to “read” and interpret the clues to document and open new views of history.
“Ideally, the whole buildings would be saved and the markings not drywalled over, but at least the markings will be recorded for use by current and future historians,” Stoner says.
Emmons, 38, grew up in Ohio, mostly in the Southern part. He earned a bachelor’s degree in history from Bowling Green State University in Ohio, then two master’s degrees, one in history at the University of Connecticut and one in historic preservation from the University of Delaware.
While he was in Connecticut, he sold real estate, specializing in historical homes. That was the first time he noticed the amount of writing, carving and other graffiti in old buildings. But his academic interest wasn’t piqued until he got into UD’s historic preservation program and was working with the Historic Center for Architecture and Design. The group does preservation work for area governments, such as documenting buildings. Emmons began to realize how much graffiti there was locally, compared to Ohio and Connecticut.
It’s partly because the area has so many brick and stone buildings, he says. Regions rely on native materials to build, often wood, he says. But Delaware had a surfeit of stone and clay, which could be used to make bricks. It also had wooden structures, some now demolished or dismantled. They didn’t survive, but the brick and stone ones did.
It’s easy for anyone to see some historical markings he said. Cornerstones marked with dates are common in churches, public buildings and even the homes of the wealthy.
“What is it with dating houses?” he says jokingly. Modern homeowners would never dream of posting a date on their house somewhere with the family initials, although he tries to imagine what his home in Newark would like like with a big EMN 2010—for Michael and Nicole Emmons—on the front.
Those stones tell him that people were once much more conscious of time.
“Why did people think it was important?” he says. “If you go into history, you will see people dated and initialed old trunks, jewelry, mugs, samplers. They put dates and their names on a lot of stuff. I think what we’re seeing with buildings is kind of a parallel to that marking culture. I firmly believe that humans have an innate need to leave a permanent mark behind. And I think that kind of expresses that all of us want to not be forgotten. We want to be immortal through leaving symbols of ourselves.”
He uses Old Swedes Church as an example. Big stones carved with dates and initials signal the builder or designer. Smaller stones placed in the outside church walls—usually up much higher, where you’d need a ladder to look directly at it—likely signify a stone cutter who worked on the wall or a church patron. They’re much higher than even Emmons, who is 6-foot-5, can see well.
He points out small random iron letters on each side of the building. They once spelled out Swedish blessings for the church in hand hammered iron.
One said, “Christ is our polestar.” Another said, “God is with us.”
They are examples of apotropaic writings, words meant to create a protective shell of blessings over the building and its occupants, Emmons says. It’s the kind of writing that would have meant a lot to men and women trying to make a new life in a new land and helped them feel safe there.
But Old Swedes was abandoned in the early 1700s, and the carvings in the doors on the back side of the church seem to date largely from the early 1830s to 1841. They include initials, names and hometowns, dates, simple drawings of the church and other buildings. Some is obliterated, with letters or names scratched out.
Some of the writings – the letters or the names – may have been the only letters that the carvers could draw, Emmons says. They likely weren’t the kind of people who kept diaries or wrote letters.
“When that graffiti began to show up on those doors, you’re seeing that the building has gone from being the center and focal point of early Wilmington and this edifice of pride to being this forgotten artifice that people can go and scratch up,” he says.
“It tells you that Wilmington is changing dramatically in the 19th century. There’s new generations who want to have a style of church more in the middle of the city, as it had grown away from Old Swedes, so now Old Swedes is on the edge.”
The same thing was happening in other cities such as Philadelphia and Boston, as people moved away from the first neighborhoods and spread out, he says.
Emmons says he’s been told that people even went into the church and carved things into the pews. He would have loved to see what was there, and he’s betting it included things that wouldn’t have been considered Christian material.
When a congregation did return to Old Swedes, they chose to replace the pews, but kept the doors, a nod to the church’s history, says Rebecca L. Wilson, executive director of the Old Swedes Foundation.
Some of Emmons’ photographs of historical graffiti are on display at the Historic Old New Castle Designer Show House, open until Nov. 8, that is benefiting the Sunday Breakfast Mission. That came about after a chance meeting between Emmons and designer Deanna Johnson.
He had been at Battery Park in Old New Castle with his wife and children when he decided to walk up to the Kensey Johns Jr. house, where the show home is taking place, to take photos. It was built between 1823 and 1827, and he had noticed graffiti there that he wanted to photograph, because he was afraid something might happen to it if the house sold.
He was working when Johnson came out for a break. They began talking, and she and partner Jena Baffone of Delaware Furniture Exchange decided to use enlarged photos of his work to highlight an old office they were decorating.
Emmons is getting ready to write his dissertation by collecting data, which means field work and finding grafitti to photograph. He hopes people will invite him to come see their homes and buildings that have old writing and carvings on them.
He can visit some buildings he’s working on through UD, but he can’t just walk into most buildings.
“I would love to hear from hundreds of people,” Emmons says. “I think I need to find as many of these as possible and document them, and then look for a pattern.”
He’d also like to visit some famous sites. Emmons has been told by an architectural historian that at Mount Vernon, George Washington’s home outside Washington, D.C., there are interesting markings in a cupola there.