2018 Special Exhibit
VICE: Portsmouth's Traditions & Taboos Over 300+ Years
For nearly the entire 300 year span of life on the Portsmouth waterfront, one's first stop, from either docks, the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, or the merchant vessel ports of call was a neighborhood bound to offer `a vice or two. Marcy Street, the eastern border of Puddle Dock, was home to saloons, taverns and brothels. Today’s sanitized streets would be unrecognizable to residents of this neighborhood from almost any other era.
Colonial residents enjoyed Madeira wine, port favored in London, home brewed beer, punch made from imported Tobago rum, and copious amounts of tobacco from Virginia and Spain. A century later, Victorian inhabitants experimented with the latest in personal grooming and elaborate dining trends at the many downtown shops. Wealthy Portsmouth city dwellers indulged in extravagant gowns decorated with frills and lace and complicated table settings accented by fine china, crystal and decanters filled with intoxicating beverages. Turn of the 20th century visitors and residents frequented the Water (now Marcy) Street taverns and indulged in numerous diversions, including beer from the big business Portsmouth breweries and visits to the brothels that made up a nationally notorious "red light district."
Vice explores customs of the past and present. As tragic tales of overdose and accidents fills contemporary news reports, this reflection of vices from the past allows perspective into the lives of Puddle Dockers. The conclusion must be that vices, harmful and benign, have been a part of life in every century.
The new exhibit in the Rowland Gallery at Strawbery Banke explores questions surrounding vices, including: Do you think it’s fair to judge one another’s vices? Would we consider a vice to be a depravity in one’s character? Has that always been so? It is likely that one’s chosen vice is a reprieve from everyday stress or even a moment of joy?
The exhibit includes relevant objects from the museum collection, including various glassware from large tankards and flip glasses to colonial wineglasses recovered from the museum's archaeological excavations. Objects related to tobacco consumption include late 19th century cigars and pipes used by author and former resident Thomas Bailey Aldrich, and mid-20th century products from the neighborhood Abbott store. Scenes are set to display lavish table settings and alcohol consumption. A "brothel bedroom" is furnished, featuring personal hygiene and adornment objects used by sex workers, and brought to life with the sounds of activity out on the docks and the scent of perfume. Space is also provided for museum visitors to contemplate what constitutes a vice in the 21st century and how our habits compare or contrast with those of our neighbors in the past.