History Inspiration Uncategorized

Elizabeth Van Lew

By Elizabeth Bickford

By Elizabeth Bt“Crazy Bette,” that is one of the names by which Elizabeth Van Lew was known. A very effective Union Spy in the Capitol of the Confederacy, Miss Van Lew cut a wide swath through Confederate plans and Richmond, Virginia’s social circles.  Born in Richmond on October 15, 1818, she was the only daughter of John Van Lew, a prominent and prosperous hardware merchant who had relocated from Long Island. Elizabeth’s mother, Eliza Baker, from Philadelphia, was the daughter of Hilary Baker, abolitionist and an early Mayor of that “City of Brotherly Love.”

From an early age Elizabeth and her brother, John Newton, were exposed to abolitionist thoughts and ideals. When she was quite young her parents sent her to be educated at a Quaker School in Philadelphia. This time spent with her relatives, their friends and other students at the school, galvanized Elizabeth into a full-fledged abolitionist. When she returned to Richmond after her father’s death in 1843, her heart burned with a passion to see slavery overturned. The first place to begin was at home, because, despite his wife’s abolitionist leanings, John Van Lew owned slaves. 

Upon his passing, Elizabeth convinced her brother, John Newton, to free their father’s slaves. Staying true to her mission, Elizabeth then took her entire inheritance and bought the relatives of their former slaves so that she could free them, as well.

The American Civil War provided an ideal opportunity for Miss Van Lew to pursue her cause in earnest.  At first she ministered to Union prisoners who came to Libby, Belle Isle or Pemberton Prisons. Her contact with fellow abolitionists strengthened her zeal. She was perfectly situated, in society and, within the City of Richmond, to be able to gather secret information about the Confederacy and send it on to Union Generals. And, in addition to gathering secrets, she also smuggled people across enemy lines. Further, she set up an underground network of spies and established funding that was used to bribe officials for information.

Her incredible espionage abilities, such as creating networks, identities, raising monies,  disguising herself, and committing acts of derring-do, elevated Elizabeth to the head of the Union Spy Network in Richmond. She held that position until the end of the Civil War.

After the war was over, President Ulysses S. Grant, a man with whom she had much contact during the previous five years, granted her a Postmaster’s position in Richmond.  Feisty to the end, it is reported that one Sunday morning in church, the minister was extolling the virtues of the Confederate General, Robert E. Lee, and Miss Van Lew arose from her seat, and exclaimed, “I came to worship Jesus Christ, not Robert E. Lee,” as she strode out of the chapel.

And, while she was beloved by her Unionist colleagues, she was reviled by her Confederate neighbors.  She had no family, and after her death, her house was burned to the ground by residents of Richmond.

To this day, Elizabeth Van Lew’s skills and bravery are lionized. She is a member of the United States Military Intelligence Hall of Fame.

Sources: Van Lew


 Image:           “Van Lew, Elizabeth ,” House Divided: The Civil War Research Engine at   Dickinson College,

Culture History Inspiration Museums Realizing Your Dream Stories Uncategorized Vintage

Making a Museum: Establishing A Collection-This one is focused on Everyday Life


What does it take to start a museum? What is the impetus? What do you want to say or explore? Is there a topic upon which you want to expound, examining its’ multitudinous dimensions? Are there stories that highlight a specific theme that you want to tell? Do you want to preserve specific memories?  These are the driving forces behind establishing a collection/museum.

In the first of this several-part-series that focuses on creating displays that cause conversation, I’m going to cite the Museum of Everyday Life in Glover, Vermont.  Charmingly situated on the edge of the road, on the shores of a small pond (where, one of my compatriots, told me, a large set of plastic shark’s teeth used to jut out of the water, evoking JAWS!), this old barn beckons you to ENTER!

According to the Museum’s website, the Museum

“…is an ongoing  revolutionary museum experiment based in Glover, Vermont. Its mission is a heroic, slow-motion cataloguing of the quotidian–a detailed, theatrical expression of gratitude and love for the minuscule and unglamorous experience of daily life in all its forms. We celebrate mundanity, and the mysterious delight embedded in the banal but beloved objects we touch everyday.”

And, true to their mission, the Philosophers who staff, curate and direct this most un-stuffy and unusual exhibition have collected quotidiana that defies definition.  In fact, as their First Manifesto states:

“The Museum of Everyday Life is proud to launch its mission of glorious obscurity.”


While, mostly, the objects on display underscore our desire to grace the very ordinary with a little bit of life, the staff is also interested in discussing why we need these items.  For instance, toothbrushes are one category of household necessities is well-represented.  The Philosophers ascribe the need for the humble toothbrush to our interest in foods, particularly sugary ones, vis-a-vis our equally strong interest in preventing tooth decay.  One of the most eye-catching dental devices on display is a “His and Her Toothbrush,” an alligator  who comes apart. The chopper cleaner that was crafted by Katherine Nook is brightly colored and sure does bring a smile.  It makes you wonder why she didn’t make more of them!




Pencil Sharpeners



This is fabulous pencil art!

A history and homage to The Match is another amazing exhibition. A matchstick rollercoaster,  working instruments made of matches, the story of Prometheus and a giant match are some of the objects that kindle the imagination with their luminescent wit!




This stunning beauty is made of all things metal — and she sure does shine!

Significant collections of safety pins, keys and locks explore humanity’s needs to hold things together and keep them locked up.  Clare Dolan, Chief Operating Philosopher, together with her Co-Philosophers, have amassed amazing arrays of these pins, locks and keys and explore their uses with depth and wit. 

When it comes down to it, the Museum of Everyday Life provokes discussion about how we live by taking a gander at some of the material culture that comprise our day to day existence. I like what Clare Dolan said in a Vermont Public Radio interview, and I’m paraphrasing here, that she hopes this will inspire others to start their own museums featuring their own stories!

For an online tour of the Museum, and, lot of interesting information about its’ history, programs and current exhibitions check out their website

They also have a cool Facebook page.  And, speaking of similar concepts, check out the Museum of Everyday Life in Iceland: Hversdagssafn – museum of everyday life.