Boston Globe Article

Middleborough museum exhibit recalls celebrity little people

By John Laidler

August 25, 2013

In the midst of the Civil War in 1863, a large crowd turned out at Grace Church in New York City to witness the wedding of a diminutive couple, Tom Thumb of Bridgeport, Conn, and Lavinia Warren of Middleborough.

The high-profile ceremony and a hotel reception afterwards that drew 2,000 guests was one of the most celebrated episodes in the eventful career of the two dwarfs, who earned fame as performers through their association with the legendary showman P.T. Barnum.

A century and a half later, the memory of Warren and Thumb remains alive in Middleborough, where Warren grew up and where the couple — when they were not on the road — resided for a good part of their 20-year marriage.

The Middleborough Historical Association maintains a collection of clothing and other artifacts from the lives of Warren and Thumb, whose real name was Charles Stratton, and exhibits them at its Middleborough Historical Museum on Jackson Street.

To mark the 150th anniversary of the fabled wedding, the association recently had a specialist restore a dress that had belonged to Warren and is now displaying the historic garment in a special exhibit at the museum.

“Seeing it on a mannequin specially made to her proportions, you can visualize her height and what she looked like,” Dan Thompson, a member of the historical association’s board, said of the 32-inch Warren.

The black two-piece silk-and-net dress embellished with sequins was originally thought to have been worn by Warren when she and Stratton had an audience with Queen Victoria in England, a meeting that occurred either during a European tour they took shortly after the wedding or on a worldwide tour that began about six years later.

But Marie Schlag, the textile conservator who restored the dress, determined based on design that it would have been made in the 1890s.

Schlag, a Scituate resident, said that the dress was in poor condition when she began working on it, but that she and the association chose it for the restoration in part because it was more glamorous than another dress they considered.

“The other was a lovely silk embroidered dress, but it was sedate. This had a lot more flash and excitement to it,” she said.

Due to the dress’s state of disrepair, the restoration was a challenge that required the use of many different conservation techniques, said Schlag, who estimated the project took her 200 hours to complete.

“I was dealing with silk net and with sequins made of gelatin, not metal or plastic. So you really had to be very particular about how you repaired the damage,” said Schlag, who also had to use a special dry-cleaning-sponge method to clean the dress.

“It’s wonderful to see it,” Cynthia McNair, president of the historical association, said of the dress. “You can talk about how little Lavinia was, but to see the dress, it’s like she’s coming alive.”

The exhibit is located in one of two old mill houses at the museum, a seven-building complex behind the police station.

Born in 1841, Warren grew up in a longtime Middleborough family. After attending school, she left Middleborough to work as a performer on a relative’s riverboat on the Mississippi River.

Stratton was born in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1838. He vaulted into early stardom when Barnum tapped him at age 4 to perform at his American Museum in New York City. Through their affiliation, Stratton performed as General Tom Thumb during the next two decades in this country and abroad, playing the part of real and fictional characters.

Warren gained attention from her work on the Mississippi, and in 1862 Barnum recruited her to work as one of his performers. Warren and Stratton met soon after, and “it was love at first sight,” McNair said.

Their wedding on Feb. 10, 1863, was “a huge media event,” Thompson said, noting that it “put the Civil War off the front page of the newspapers.”

The spotlight on the couple continued when they traveled on to Philadelphia and then to Washington, D.C., where they were hosted at the White House by President Abraham Lincoln and his wife, and later during their European tour.

In Middleborough, the couple lived in a three-story house that they built across from the farmhouse where Warren’s family resided and an adjacent Cape where the family previously lived. McNair said all three houses remain in use as private residences today.

Stratton died in 1883, but Warren remarried two years later to “Count” Primo Magri, an Italian dwarf performer. The two resided in Middleborough but traveled with a performing troupe. Warren died in 1918 and Magri in 1919.

Thompson said that like many in Middleborough, he grew up absorbing the lore of the town’s connection to Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren. The story had a personal connection for him, because when his mother was a child her family lived in a two-family house above Warren’s nephew, Benjamin J. Bump, and his mother. Bump’s father was a brother of Warren, who was born Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump.

“Growing up, it was seen as our connection to the world of the rich and famous, celebrities,” he said of the town’s link to Stratton and Warren. “They were the stars of their time.”

Association members hope that the dress exhibit — and the colorful story of Stratton and Warren it recalls — can stimulate local residents to take a greater interest in the town’s past and explore all the museum has to offer.

“The museum focuses on life here in Middleborough and the surrounding areas as it was in the mid-1800s, and they were certainly part of that,” Thompson said.

John Laidler can be reached at

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Good thing comes in small package for Middleboro

Restoring dress of Mrs. Tom Thumb was huge undertaking

Marc Vasconcellos/The Enterprise

A dress once worn by Lavinia Warren (Mrs. Tom Thumb) is on display at the Middleboro Historical Museum.

By Jennifer Bray
Posted Jul 06, 2013 @ 06:00 AM

In 1892, Ellis Island in New York Harbor opened as the main immigration center on the East Coast.

In 1893, the New York Stock Exchange collapsed, touching off a financial tsunami.

And in 1896, the United States took part in the first modern Olympic games, which were held in Athens, Greece.

Today, a rare piece of history from that period is on display at the Middleboro Historical Museum.

A dress with rumors of royalty, worn by Lavinia Warren, wife of Tom Thumb, is making its debut after being kept under wraps for more than 120 years.

At one time it was thought that Lavinia wore the inky black creation when she was received overseas by Queen Victoria.

Thumb and Warren were world-famous petite performers during that time.

At one point, they worked for P.T. Barnum and his famous circus.

But in their down time, they lived quietly in Middleboro.

The Middleboro Historical Museum is home to the largest collection of Tom Thumb and Lavinia Warren memorabilia. The museum recently commissioned a painstaking conservation project of the dress.

The black silk and net frock with velvet and sequin trim may only measure 26 inches long and span three yards of fabric in width, but it took Marie Schlag, a textile conservator, a year to bring it back to life.

“Over the course of a year, I probably spent 200 hours on the dress,” Schlag said.

She explained that her job began with a fiber analysis of the gown.

“There is a lot of science in this. I measured it and did an analysis of all the things wrong with it.”

The silk was so degraded, according to Schlag, that an intense bout of cleaning was done by hand.

The soils that were removed or reduced from the dress were vacuumed with specialized HEPA filters.

The sparkling sequins that made Lavinia’s dress glimmer and shimmer were an entire project in themselves.

“There are probably between 2,000 and 3,000 sequins on that dress, and because they are made from gelatin they cannot be wet or they dissolve,” Schlag explained.

Her painstaking methods included special dry cleaning techniques to bring the luster back to the sequins.

The skirt on the dress also posed a major textile conservation challenge.

“The skirt itself had a lot of slits, tears and breaks. The silk it was made from ages and it gets dessicated,” Schlag said.

To close those gaps, the conservator had to dye silk to match the dress. The next step was using adhesives to stick it to the back side of the silk by using adhesives and heat. The silk was too fragile for a needle.

That’s the biggest difference between conservation and restoration, said Schlag.

“Restoration changes the cultural history of the object, and conservation slows down the degradation and is always reversible,” she said.

Schlag said it is not known who made Lavinia’s dress. She completed a lot of historical research before embarking on the conservation project.

“To be able to keep that piece of history in our culture is why I do what I do,” Schlag said. “When I look at something in deplorable condition, open that box and that’s when my heart skips a beat. I say wow! I first appreciate where it’s been and who saw it.”

Jennifer Bray may be reached at


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Delightful tour guide made museum visit memorable

August 30, 2012 11:47 AM

To the Editor:

Our seven-member Lakeville book discussion group read “The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb, a Novel” this past year and as a follow-up visited The Middleborough Historical Museum on Jackson Street yesterday. This museum houses the world’s largest collection of Tom Thumb memorabilia.

The purpose of this letter is to lavish praise on our tour guide, Gladys Beals. Because she was good friends with the mother of one of our members, we calculated her age to be around 90 years young. What an incredible oral history she gave us, all the while pointing out maps or pictures or chairs or interesting artifacts, and never faltering, never losing her place. She was articulate and interesting, dressed impeccably and seemed to thoroughly enjoy her subject … and the sharing of her knowledge with us. She made our tour of the museum a memorable one.

Thank you, Gladys.

Carol Kalchthaler


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Open for Business Once Again: The Peirce Company Store

June 21, 2012 11:26 AM

This Saturday, the Middleborough Historical Museum reopens its iconic Peter H. Peirce Company exhibit, with an open house from 10 to 3, including a ribbon-cutting at 10 and tours at 11. The exhibit documents the history of the Peirce Company store that occupied what is now the Middleborough police station on North Main Street from the early 1800s through 1935. Closed for the past few years in order to permit repairs to the building which houses it, as well as a re-cataloging and re-interpretation of the exhibit artifacts, the Peter H. Peirce Company exhibit has long been a popular attraction at the museum, and the public is invited to come celebrate its re-opening.

The Peirce family, their store, and the fund which they left behind, all hold an important place in Middleborough history. In 1934, a year before the store officially closed, the Middleboro Gazette published an overview of the store’s history, which follows.

“Our feature this week relates the story of a store – the P. H. Peirce Company – from whose extensive trade of years ago, a trust fund was able to be established for the use of the Town of Middleboro, and which has been of great value and assistance since its origination.

“The old firm name of P. H. Peirce and Company stood for Peter Hoar Peirce and his sons. Job, Thomas and James were the sons interested in the general store, which was however a department store as we speak of them today.

“Peter Hoar Peirce, who was born March 25, 1788, and who was named after Peter Hoar, with whom he lived after the death of his parents, began as a storekeeper in the two story house now standing at the Upper Four Corners, on the southeast corner of the intersection of “¦ Main and Vaughan streets in Lakeville.

“He had few advantages, but developed an unusual business ability in his early youth, and by his energy and persistent endeavor, he became the leading business man of the town. Forseeing business life at the Four Corners, he moved from Lakeville into Middleboro and set up headquarters in the store on North Main Street.

“The old store, which was started in 1808, satisfied the needs of the townspeople and residents of the neighboring towns withi a radius of twenty miles. They drove here to purchase the necessities of life.

“In the back room, there were bolts of cloth for dresses, shirts and aprons and an assortment of ribbons, buttons, thread and all sewing materials. This room also contained earthenware, farming implements and carpets, wallpapers and oilcloth.

“In the cellar was a room set apart for the sale of ‘West Indies goods’, which included rum, gin, brandy and all spirituous liquors.

“The order wagons were driven about town to solicit orders and deliver goods. This type of store was conducted for about 75 years. As other stores opened in the district the sale of merchandise other than groceries was gradually dropped.

“‘Mr. Thomas’ and ‘Mr. James’ were the only surviving Peirces at the time Elton L. Pratt came to work as clerk in the store. This was in 1885, and Herbert A. Pratt started with the firm in 1893.

“Mr. James Peirce died in 1901, and his brother Thomas also passed away that same year. ‘Mr. Thomas’ was the last of the Peirce brothers and consequently inherited much of their wealth. At his death he gave over a half a million dollars to the Town of Middleboro and a hundred thousand to the Public Library.

“After his death, however, the business was purchased by the Pratt brothers who conducted a grocery store until 1929, when Elton L. Pratt bought out his brother’s share.

“Mr. Pratt, who is the present owner, has seen many changes take place both inside and out. Electricity has replaced the old fashioned oil lamps which were used. The cash registers and adding machines and modern forms of bookkeeping are a great improvement over the old money drawer and ledgers so crudely kept. The end of the store used as sheds was remodeled for storage purposes. As the horse and carriage was replaced by the automobile, the sheds used by the customers, who drove into town, were no longer necessary.

“On the second floor of the building was a hall large enough to seat two hundred people. Years ago, town meetings and entertainments were conducted there at at one time, the Catholic church services were held in this hall.

“From all the facts at hand, it is interesting to learn that such an establishment existed in those early days, and that there are very few changes if any in the building, where the store of Peter Hoar Peirce was the center of trade in this portion of the state.”

The following year, in 1935, the Peter H. Peirce Company store closed forever, concluding a history of over 125 years.

For more local history, visit

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