The Florence Babbitt Collection

Published In:
Ypsilanti Gleanings, Summer 2010,
Summer 2010
Original Images:







(The Eastern Michigan University Florence Babbitt Collection was recently transferred to the YHS Museum on permanent loan. The collection contains 132 items. Included with the Collection was the following biography of Florence Smalley Babbitt.)

Florence Smalley Babbitt – 1847-1929: There is a rather charming story told of Florence Babbitt, Ypsilanti’s best known “collector,” which shows that even as a young girl she appreciated the old and interesting items. She and her parents were invited to a tea at a neighbor’s home. Their hostess had just acquired a new set of white china and was proud of it. The adult guests were served on the new white china and the children on the older “second” set of blue and white china. One of the children complained, “I want to eat off the new.” Whereupon, the story goes, little Florence clasped a piece of the blue and white china to her and said, “Oh, I love this old plate.” When she went home her charmed hostess gave her the plate for her very own. That piece seems to have been part of Florence’s plate collection.

To the majority of people in Ypsilanti the name Florence Smalley Babbitt means nothing; some few might say, “Oh, yes, I have heard of her, she collected “things,” others might know of her name because they had heard of their parents or older relatives mention her. This short paper is presented in the hopes that more will learn of this remarkable woman and the great debt we Ypsilantians do owe to her.

Florence Lewis Smalley Babbitt was born in Friendship, Allegheny County, New York on March 19, 1847. She was the daughter of Mortimore and Nancy Lewis Smalley. In 1852 the Smalleys with their small daughter and son came to Ypsilanti and became neighbors of Doctor and Mrs. John Winthrop Babbitt who lived at 38 North River Street. Their son “Will” Babbitt, twelve years older than Florence was sometimes her “baby sitter.”

During the Civil War Mortimore Smalley enlisted in the Twenty Seventh Michigan Infantry and Florence’s younger brother Albertus, accompanied his father as a drummer boy. Albertus is said to have been Michigan’s youngest drummer boy. After the war, the Smalleys received six hundred acres of land near Caseville, Michigan from the government and moved to that area.

Florence Babbitt graduated from the Union School and attended the Ypsilanti Seminary.

In August of 1866 Florence married John Willard Babbitt (then a young lawyer and signing himself more formally J. Willard Babbitt). They were married in Port Huron but came to Ypsilanti to live and after a few years they bought what was known as “the oldest house in Ypsilanti” and had the house moved to the southeast corner of South Huron and Race Streets (the house situated at 301 South Huron was demolished in 1935).

An article in the Ypsilanti Press of July 4, 1930 reveals quite a good deal about the house. “The house itself is rich in Ypsilanti history, having been built by the Larzelere family in the Larzelere and Post addition. Back of the barn, which is now torn down, may still be seen the Old Indian Council tree about which the Indians use to gather before the house was built. The tree, now fallen, for many years was a landmark for Ypsilanti. Behind the house also is a large mulberry patch which was planted by the early owners of the house. They had planned to start a silk industry in Ypsilanti. The house, a twelve room structure, which has been in the Babbitt family for fifty-eight years, has been unoccupied for the last twenty-eight. Mrs. Babbitt, and inveterate collector of antiques, had during the last few decades stored many of her possessions in the building so that now it is a veritable museum full of surprises.”

One of Mrs. Babbitt’s daughters, Nan Babbitt Church, said she always wondered if the additions made to the house were to accommodate the growing collections or the growing family of four daughters.

Of her mother, Mrs. Church also said, “…long before anyone ever thought of collecting anything American she was the bane of her family with her search for the interesting and beautiful being produced here. People thought of her not too bright and her family would groan when the phaeton would stop at the house and she would climb out with her paper wrapped bundles.”

Mrs. Babbitt became acquainted with thousands of attics and pantries in Michigan. She used to attend Art Loans which were held in the Old Detroit Art Gallery on Jefferson Avenue, and she finally convinced the curator that there was beauty in other things besides painting and statuary and wore down his resistance so that he gave her permission to put on an exhibit of fifty of her finest old plates. Everyone was surprisingly interested in this collection and it was then that Mr. Griffith, the curator, saw how sensible it would be for the Museum to have a room devoted to early American things. However, even though convinced he refused to act, saying “no time, no money,” but he told Mrs. Babbitt she could arrange the exhibit herself. Her answer was that she would furnish the articles if he but supply the room. As she was on very friendly terms with many of the old families of Detroit, she set about the task of getting them to part with their precious “keep-sakes” for what was to be the American Wing of the Detroit Museum.

By 1901 her collections were enormous. She had in her possession approximately 3,000 pieces of old china, 1,500 trays, a bushel basket full of glass cup plates, furniture, old American and English silver, brasses, pewter, lamps, samplers, etc. But in that year of 1901 Judge Babbitt died, and it became necessary for her to earn her own way in life, so she made antiques her business as well as her hobby. Advertisements similar to the following appeared in local papers around the state: “Ypsilantian, October 30, 1902 – Mrs Florence S. Babbitt has for sale a solid mahogany four-post bedstead, with tester, over one hundred years old. A genuine bargain.”

Florence Babbitt had always been interested in the career of Lewis Cass, territorial governor of Michigan from 1813 to 1831 and knew that he too, in his day may have been a “collector” and in fact had started, “A Society for the Preservation of Maps and Documents of Early Michigan” in 1828, and organization later to be known as “The Historical Society of Michigan.” An off-shoot from this organization was the Michigan Pioneer and Michigan Historical Commission, which built up a collection of documents. Florence Babbitt approached the men who headed the Pioneer and Historical Commission and presented to them the idea of preserving the household arts of Michigan. To induce them to carry out this idea she offered 3,000 dishes at $1.00 each.

“When you consider that such articles included were Lowestoft helmets, pitchers, Toby jugs, etc. you can see she made a sacrifice to the idea that Michigan, her beloved state, should preserve these things. She was made official collector for the State Society and with gifts of lamps, brass, pewter and Bennington ware collections, the State Museum at Lansing was started.” So her daughter, Nan Babbitt Church has written.

Also according to a copy of another agreement, dated January 1906, she sold the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society 1,000 pieces of Pioneer pottery for $2,500. In the files at the Ypsilanti Museum there is also an old invitation which reads: “Mrs. Florence S. Babbitt invites the members of the Grand Chapter of O.E.S. of Michigan to visit the Museum of the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Society located in the Capital at Lansing, Tuesday afternoon from four to six October ninth, nineteen hundred six, where is on exhibition her collection of old china and other relics gathered from the Pioneers of Michigan.”

So great was Florence Babbitt’s love of the past and joy of collecting she wanted to share this love with everybody. There is a perfectly charming story about her endeavor to instill in the very young this appreciation. It is best told as it was written for the Detroit Free Press on December 29, 1907: “Aged Woman Stood in Rain to Give Away Toys of Years Ago – Mrs. Florence S. Babbitt, whose collection of Child playthings is second to King Edward’s, was Santa Claus at Ypsilanti. Christmas day has come and gone, and with it the street Santa Clauses, with their long flowing beards and their red robes; Santas whose figures are familiar to all those who live in the larger and to many who live in the smaller cities, but it remained for one woman to this year enact the role of the street Santa Claus and appear upon the streets of Ypsilanti and give presents to all children between the ages of five and eight who would hand her a slip of paper containing their names and ages. This woman was Mrs. Florence S. Babbitt, widow of the late Judge J. Willard Babbitt, and known throughout the United States as the greatest collector of children’s toys over sixty years of age. Six hundred tiny parcels wrapped in red paper, white paper and blue paper and filling four bushel baskets, were distributed upon the streets, Mrs. Babbitt receiving only a slip of paper containing the recipient’s name and age, and the child was made happy. Each parcel contained a tiny china toy, of a kind quite familiar to every family, which years ago was able to afford a mantel or clock shelf, for the toys distributed were imported into this country from England before the Civil War and would probably never have been distributed had it not been that Mrs. Babbitt is able to “smell a child’s toy about five miles away,” for it was upon one of her collecting expeditions that these toys were found and purchased for distribution among the children of her home city. The afternoons of two-days, December 23 and 24, were given to the distribution of these gifts, and from the hours of three to five each day Mrs. Babbitt stood in front of one of the local stores, braving nasty damp air and rain and the sloppy condition of the street with its half melted snow, to carry out her cherished wish. One hundred and twenty-eight gifts were disposed of the first hour of the 23rd, during which time a slow drizzling rain continued. Many grown folks appeared with the children in that hour, and not a few without. Those who appeared without hoped it would be a “nice day tomorrow, and we will send our Harold or Josephine down,” while those who accompanied their children said it was “such a nasty day for our children to be out.” Only a few thought of the disagreeable day it was for an elderly woman to stand in the rain, that she might distribute Christmas gifts to their children.

Over seven hundred items from her toy collection were given to the Kent County Museum in Grand Rapids...

It was only natural that when Henry Ford started collecting early in the nineteen hundreds that he contacted Mrs. Babbitt and came to her many times to consult with her. He bought many treasures from her, including the largest collection of old jewelry in this country. When he bought the house in which he was born and lived in as a boy he asked her to refurnish it. Mrs. Church has said, “It was rather a difficult task but to her an interesting one for he did not want beautiful pieces but replicas of the pieces he well remembered. I remember momma combed the country before she could find an old ‘Jewett’ stove like the one in the Ford kitchen.”

By this time so great was Mrs. Babbitt’s fame as an authority of early American scene that William A. Brady, well known theatrical producer, sought her out in 1913 to stage the scenes for the first production of Little Women.

She also aided the staff of the Chicago Art Institute in starting an American Wing. Housed there is the Florence S. Babbitt collection of colonial coverlets, to which the Detroit Journal in a June 1917 article paid its respects: “The famous collection of thirty woven coverlets, a species of domestic industrial handicraft of early days of the last century that was gathered from the many notable pioneer families in Michigan by Mrs. Florence S. Babbitt, the well known antiquarian collector of this city, has been purchased by Rev. Dr. Frank Gunsaulus, of Chicago, and presented to the Chicago Art Institute. The Chicago Institute may well exult in thus securing the finest collection of this kind of handicraft in existence. The coverlets all have the date and name of their maker woven into them, and two, the Lafayette coverlet of 1824 and the Washington coverlet of 1831, are considered especially treasures by authorities on handicraft.”

The Chicago Art Institute people certainly appreciated Florence Babbitt, and this is shown in the Institute Newsletter for October 14, 1922: “There is an old lady living in Ypsilanti, Michigan, who is continually on the look-out for rare pieces of porcelain and earthenware. She has a method of marketing her wares peculiarly her own. Under her skirt, which is full and voluminous, is a petticoat sewed full of pockets. Into these pockets rare articles of bric-a-brac are carried to market. One wonders what might happen if she struck the business side of a banana peel. Some time ago she appeared with two rare specimens of French poodles, about three inches high, made of black basalt. There are only five sets of these in existence. These were quickly snatched up and are now reposing with other objects of black basalt in the Blanxius Collection.”

And this was not all she did, for her daughter has remembered other cities that were beneficiaries of her technical knowhow, “She also helped establish the antique wing of the museum at Toledo, Ohio and gave generously of her time and collections to Michigan towns that were brave enough and wise enough to start preserving the treasurers of their people. Three Oaks, Michigan being one of them,” wrote Mrs. Church.

Florence Babbitt became a buyer for the Chicago Art Institute with access into the homes of the very wealthy, either in her capacity as a cataloger or a buyer. In a letter to her daughter written from Chicago in 1923 she told of going one day to inspect the eminent Mrs. Potter Palmer’s collection of china and glass. Another day she was invited to the McCormick home where, she reported, “I met twenty ladies all in Colonial Costume…I was the only one in ‘citizen clothes.’ After the luncheon we sat around in a circle and I began telling of their grandmother’s china cabinets…I had expected to talk about thirty minutes, but talked about two hours for I took up each piece each lady had brought and not only told them who made them but also gave a little biographical sketch of each potter, which made it more interesting for them.”

From the Cadillac News and Express, June 14, 1906 we learn of yet another Michigan museum which benefited from Mrs. Babbitt…: “A new feature in the historical museum, displayed on this occasion for the first time, is the Florence Babbitt Collection of antique dishes, which was placed last week in especially prepared cases, so far as space would permit, though the wholly inadequate quarters would not allow of the display of more than a moderate part of the collection. There are, all together, between thirteen hundred and fourteen hundred pieces, many of them very ancient patterns, rare and valuable and taken as a whole the collection has few equals in the country. (Note: here is what happened to the “blue and white” plate) The nucleus, the nest egg of the collection, was an old blue plate which Florence Smalley, for that was her maiden name, then ten years old, had admired while at tea with her parents at a neighbor’s house, and which was given to her.”

It is difficult to say just what this unusual woman did not collect. One of the special things about her collecting was the information she had on every object, its original owner and something about the person, each object carefully marked as to maker (if known), and all such records carefully kept. Her daughter said, “What made my mother different was her insistence and persistence that someday America would be given its proper place in the museums of the country.”

As Miss Eileen M. Harrison of the Ypsilanti has written Wednesday January 30, 1963, “One of the secrets of her success was that when she was on the trail of a particular antique nothing interfered with her getting it.” This article has given us a humorous picture of Mrs. Babbitt on one of her collecting expeditions: “On one occasion she had gone to Detroit to find an old three legged iron pot. By the time she found one, she was extremely tired and sat down to wait for a street car. As old ladies will, she soon nodded off. In those days all elderly women looked more or less alike. Rich or poor, they usually wore dark colors and Mrs. Babbitt was no exception. There she sat, a tired old lady asleep in the sun, her hat a little askew. Suddenly she was awakened by an odd clink and discovered that a kindly passerby had dropped a coin into the kettle.”

But so sad and so true is Eileen Harrison’s conclusion, “She was nationally recognized through “The American Magazine” but like many…another who has carried a cause, her foresight was not fully appreciated in Ypsilanti and she was unsuccessful in her efforts to establish an historical museum here.”

It is understood that early in nineteen hundred Florence Babbitt offered the City of Ypsilanti that part of her vast collection whose pieces came originally from homes in Ypsilanti City and Township but the city fathers were unable to find a location to display them. Regarding this, the following article from the city paper dated July 25, 1901 is interesting: “A part of the collection of pioneer relics in use prior to the dedication of the Normal School at Ypsilanti in 1852 and gathered through the years of research by Mrs. Florence S. Babbitt, is now on view at Normal College. Mrs. Babbitt hopes to continue it in time to make a formal presentation to the school next year at the Normal’s fiftieth anniversary.”

Some of these articles were kept on display in cases in Old Pierce Hall, but many were packed away for lack of space. When the old building was torn down to make room for the new building over one hundred articles linked to the history of the City of Ypsilanti, Eastern Michigan University (The Old Normal) and nearby areas were found. Mrs. Eugene B. Elliott, wife of the former president of Eastern, found or was told of the boxes of valuable relics. Perhaps Mrs. Elliott thought, “What a shame not to display them some how,” and being fortunate enough to have display space, had taken them to her home and opened her own miniature museum in her basement recreation room. The articles were displayed on specially built shelves and each item was marked with a card telling a little bit of its history. Mrs. Elliott got her information about the pieces from Mrs. Babbitt’s original itemized list of articles. Since the Elliott’s have left Ypsilanti the display has been moved to the rooms of the Home Economics Department in Welch Hall. It is impossible because of space to show the complete collection all at once, so the display is changed monthly.

Mrs. Babbitt was a stickler for authenticity whenever possible. For instance, in 1923, when all Ypsilanti celebrated its centennial to publicize the city even more Mrs. Babbitt appeared in a period costume of the years between 1859-1861 (as close as she could get to the ‘founding date’). The dress and all the accessories were all purchased in Ypsilanti. The material for the dress, a green merino cloth had been bought at Norris & Follet’s Store in 1859. The French embroidered dickie and under sleeves were bought at F. K. Resford Store. The cap had been fashioned by a local milliner in 1861 and the earrings by Marvin Park’s Jewelry Store. The handkerchief, ring and bouquet holder, pins, bracelets and cap pins were from S.H. Dodge’s Jewelry Store, successor to Parks. The black lace shawl and hoops came from the Jerome G. Cross Store. The same costume was worn by Mrs. Babbitt at the Grand Army Encampment at Saginaw, Michigan, also by her at the National Grand Army Encampment at Columbus, Ohio. It was also worn at the fiftieth anniversary of the Order of the Eastern Star in Detroit, the Supreme White Shrine of Jerusalem at Grand Rapids and many other historical gatherings. It is interesting to know that the same dress was found in an old suit case and is still in good condition and was worn as recently as 1965 by a faculty wife for a program put on by the University Wives of Eastern Michigan University.

When Ypsilanti was struck by the disastrous cyclone in 1893 Mrs. Babbitt was right on hand, or at least she was the next day. She took many pictures of the damages. She sold these photographs for only twenty-five cents each, and so there may be quite a few homes in Ypsilanti that have pictorial records of the storm of 1893.

During her lifetime there seem to have been few people in Ypsilanti City and Township and for miles around who were not approached by Mrs. Babbitt and coaxed out of something of theirs for her collections. That this was true is borne out by this little poem attributed to Atwood McAndrew, Sr. and first read at a local dinner which Mrs. Babbitt attended.

There was an old woman named Babbitt
Who gathered up dishes from habit
She started the STAR
Ran the whole G.A.R.
If you have an old dish, she’ll nab it

Now just what else did this amazing woman do to occupy her time? For many the time consuming work of collecting and cataloging would be enough, but obviously Mrs. Babbitt was a real leader and had many causes in which she believed and for which she gave her time and energy.

Her obituary notice of November 4, 1929 listed a number of her varied activities: “She was a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution, Charter Member of Ypsilanti Order of the Eastern Star – 119, honorary member of Grand Chapter O.E.S. in Michigan. She initiated the “Flag Service” at the Grand Chapter in 1902, which is used throughout the chapters in the United States. It was through her suggestion and efforts that a flag was placed in every O.E.S. Chapter room in churches. She was past President of the Carpenter Relief Corps, #65, and held every office in the Department of Women Relief Corp in Michigan. She was honorary member of the Daughters of War Veterans of ’61, honorary member of Women’s Study Club, charter member of the Ladies Literary Club, honorary member of the Supreme White Shrine of Jerusalem, Vice President of the Three-Quarters Century Club, member of the Michigan Historical Society and one of the pioneers of Historical and Antiques Collectors of Michigan. She was a life member of the Episcopal Church and of the Parish Aid Society.

During her presidency of the Carpenter Relief Corps of Ypsilanti the money was raised to build the base for the Civil War Memorial in Highland Cemetery, the statue given by Mrs. John Starkweather, and dedicated May 30, 1895. A newspaper reporter gave her full credit: “The beautiful $5,000 soldiers monument in Ypsilanti is chiefly due to her efforts, which she kept up for years when everybody else had become weary and discouraged, managing excursions and promoting schemes of all sorts, until the necessary money was secured, not only for that but for assisting the soldiers monuments at Dexter and Chelsea. At Ypsilanti she induced the Michigan Central to dedicate a pretty triangular plot of ground at the depot as “Cass Plot” and erected thereon a flagpole, and kept flying from its peak a fine flag during the whole of the Spanish War, as a tribute to our soldier boys and to General Cass, who was a patron saint in her father’s political calendar (Like her father, she was a democrat).

Mrs. Babbitt was active in the 27th Michigan Infantry Auxiliary and served as President of the Auxiliary in 1902. It was while she was president of the Auxiliary that the 27th held its 40th reunion here in Ypsilanti in October of 1902. There is in downtown Ypsilanti a block of buildings known as the Thompson Block. During the Civil War these buildings were used as the barracks of the 27th Michigan Infantry, Mrs. Babbitt’s fathers regiment. The following article from The Cleveland Leader of October 1901 tells a touching story of just how it happened that the 27th held its reunion in Ypsilanti: “The twenty-seventh Michigan Regiment was stampeded Thursday morning by a daughter of the regiment. She selected the place of holding the next meeting and was elected President of the Regiment Association. The 27th Michigan was holding its reunion in a hall at 354 Ontario Street, and the meeting was proceeding slowly along the regular channels. A drum corps of veterans had just finished the opening selection when Mrs. Florence S. Babbitt of Ypsilanti, Michigan, walked in. Four years ago she was made a daughter of the regiment because her father and brother had gone out with that organization in 1861. As soon as she came in Thursday the music stopped and veterans arose to give her a salute. It happened that the next thing on the program was the selection of the place for holding next meeting. Flushing, Michigan, had been selected for this year’s meeting, but arrangements had been changed to come to Cleveland, and some thought that Flushing ought to have the meeting place for next year. About that time Mrs. Babbitt arose and asked them to go to Ypsilanti. All of the places that had been mentioned immediately withdrew their claims, and with shouts of “Ypsilanti,” the veterans arose to their feet and proclaimed that city as their choice. The next thing was the election of officers, in Ypsilanti, Mrs. Florence S. Babbitt was made President by acclamation.

(The article continues with many other tributes to Mrs. Babbitt. A copy of the article was found with the Babbitt Collection on permanent loan to the YHS Museum from the Eastern Michigan University Archives. Author unknown.)

Photo Captions:

Photo 1: Florence Babbitt wearing the historical costume she wore at the Ypsilanti centennial celebration in 1923. All the articles in the costume were bought in Ypsilanti between the years 1859-1861.

Photo 2: The historical costume worn by Florence Babbitt in 1923 is now on display in the YHS Museum.

Photo 3:This picture is in the YHS Archives and the writing on the back indicates it is a Babbitt Collection display at the Kent County Museum in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The date is unknown.

Photo 4: This unique pin cushion bird is part of the EMU Babbitt Collection that is now housed in the YHS Museum. It was donated by Phoebe Thompson Miller of Ypsilanti.

Photo 5: This Willcox & Gibbs automatic noiseless sewing machine is part of the EMU Babbitt Collection now housed in the YHS Museum.