High fliers always seek lower altitude in rough weather

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High fliers always seek lower altitude in rough weather

December 15, 1994
By Pamela J. Cressey

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Adam Lynn deeded his tea service to a sister due to financial problems; it was passed on to his niece who met her future husband at Mount Vernon. Owned by the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Photo courtesy of Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, Winston-Salem, N.C.
Almost daily we read in the newspapers about the number of people unemployed and underemployed. People with high level skills and former high incomes have had to develop adaptive strategies to keep their families afloat during hard times.

Looking back through Alexandria's past, we can see times which parallel our own. After 1810, Alexandria's economy experienced a series of reversals brought on by external events. The War of 1812, the over-extension of credit, the Panic of 1819, and the decreasing productivity and prices for local crops caused a downturn for many Alexandrians.

How did people cope? In many of the same ways we do today. By tracing historic records we can witness an individual downsize his lifestyle, sell possessions and property, borrow on credit, mortgage land, and turn to relatives for help.

A tea service in the Lyceum's current silver exhibit is symbolic of this adaptive strategy. Adam Lynn, a silversmith, made this tea service for his own use during the decade spanning 1795 to 1805. Lynn engraved his initials AL in script on the sides of the teapot, creamer and sugar. The set was made while Lynn was still in his 20s, and Alexandria was a thriving port.

We encountered Adam Lynn archaeologically in 1977 while excavating his family's property on the Courthouse Site, 500 block of King Street. I have always held Lynn fondly, since this was my first Alexandria "dig." The Lynn family's fortunes molded the character of the Courthouse block and taught me how to study the complexities of urban life here. While we found many artifacts, unfortunately none of them were silver. The tea service survived as it was handed down through the family of Adam's sister.

Adam was one of five children of Catherine and Adam Lynn, Sr.,a baker, public official and owner of a quarter of this city block. After going into silversmithing, engraving and hardware business, Adam purchased his family home from the father's estate and constructed an elegant four-bay wide Federal brick home by 1813.

Lynn began buying real estate on credit. Perhaps like the 1980s, land speculation was rampant in this decade. As a member of the Town Council, the St. Paul's vestry and a Masonic officer, Lynn was a pillar of the community. But banks called in his notes between 1816 and 1820; Lynn was forced to liquidate. He placed his 500 block land in trust to his nephew-in-law, Thomas Childs.

Lynn deeded the tea service to his sister Catherine Coryton as security for a $1370 debt. The tea service descended from Catherine's daughter Ann Eliza Childs for three generations. Mr. Gilpin Willson, Jr. donated the tea service to the Mount Vernon Ladies' Association. Adam weathered his stormy time. See the tea service at the Lyceum through January. Catherine B. Hollan's silver catalogue in the Lyceum Shop makes a wonderful holiday gift. Call 703-838-4994 for information.

Pamela Cressey is the Alexandria City Archaeologist.