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What the Cushing Family Left Us

Unknown Boy with BirdHISTORY MATTERS

We live in an age of miraculous technology and super-discounted products. So what will you bequeath to your heirs? And will they care about your old 21st century junk? (Continued below) 


Our material culture has shifted radically since great grandma was around. Her fine old books are available electronically on Kindle™. Her massive piano is now a pocket synthesizer or Guitar Hero™ game. Wooden dories are now fiberglass kayaks. Hand-made furniture and crafted leather shoes have been replaced by low-cost IKEA products and Crocs™. Digital pictures are the new family portraits. The thought of repairing a TV, a phone, or a toaster now seems silly, not frugal.

Atlantic magazine reporter Ellen Ruppel Shell says Americans have been seduced into getting less for less money. Her new book, Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture, offers a "lively and terrifying" look at our cycle of consumption according to a review in What we think is clever bargain-hunting on our part, Shell says, may just be clever marketing, deceptive pricing, and our cultural loss of what quality really is.

We care more about the price than the product, it seems, which has driven corporations to hire cheap foreign labor. The real winners, she says, are not the consumers, but a few very wealthy owners. The former CEO of Wal-Mart, Shell points out, received more in his weekly paycheck than his average employee could earn in a lifetime.

Little Harbor luxury

Hancock portrait by John Copley at Portsmouth AthenaeumOur ancestors loved bargains too, but they also had an eye for quality. Portsmouth’s Cushing family, for example, preferred the finer things in life – fine furniture, artwork, silverware – items that have survived the test of time. You can see for yourself in the items they donated to the Portsmouth Athenaeum (on display through August 28). Two years ago while cataloguing the collection, curator Elizabeth Aykroyd noticed that a large number of items at the Athenaeum had come from the Cushing family who lived at Little Harbor in the 1760-era mansion once owned by colonial governor Benning Wentworth. John Templeman Coolidge of Boston bought the rambling 40-room mansion in 1876 as a summer home. The Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion is now a museum owned by the state of New Hampshire.

Much is known about the Coolidge family who turned the mansion into a summer colony for Boston-area artists. But until Aykroyd’s research, little was known about the Cushings who bought the house in 1816 from Martha Wentworth. Charles Cushing, the son of a Boston senator, married Anne Shaefe of Portsmouth in 1805 and their family owned the mansion for 70 years before selling it to the Coolidges. The Cushing are, therefore, the anonymous "hyphen" in the Wentworth-Coolidge Mansion. And they might have stayed unknown, except for the artwork and furniture they bequeathed to the Athenaeum.

Aykroyd says she knew nothing about the Cushings until she began her deep research into the many items they gave to the Athenaeum, beginning as early as 1828. Their Portsmouth mansion, she says, is the only American Royal Governor's house still standing, and the Cushings were the first family known to open their doors to public visitors as early as 1846. Because the house was so large, they acquired a great deal of artwork and furniture. Early photographs of the house show the same items now on display at the Athenaeum.

CONTINUE Cushing Family treasures

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Saturday, February 24, 2018 
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