Six Degrees of Abraham Lincoln: A Historic Mirror Stored at The Conservation Center

Martha's mirror, on display in her former home in Rockford.

Martha's mirror, on display in her former home in Rockford.

While The Conservation Center is well known for its fine art conservation capabilities, additional expert services are offered as well. One of our clients, Martha Manning, has become quite familiar with the work that The Center provides, having many of her cherished art and heirloom pieces treated here over the years. As she explains, "I collect objects. I love them whether they are simple or ornate, I love the their accompanying stories and I love preserving them." But when Martha moved from her old home with sky-high ceilings into a 14th floor apartment in a mid-rise building, she was struck with a conundrum. A gigantic gilt mirror that had been in the family for generations would no longer fit in her home, and with such a rich backstory, she knew she couldn't give it up just yet.

The mirror had been passed down through the family, once belonging to a great-great-grandfather, John Pels Manny, business partner to his more famous cousin, John Henry Manny. It was John Henry Manny who in 1853 invented what became known as the Manny Reaper. The Manny Reaper gained notoriety at the Dixon Field Trials, the New York State Fair, and went on to show at the Paris Exhibition. Its success allowed the family to found J.H. Manny and Company, which produced nearly three thousand harvest machines annually.

John Henry Manny, inventor of the Manny Reaper; Abraham Lincoln

John Henry Manny, inventor of the Manny Reaper; Abraham Lincoln

John Pels Manny and his granddaughter, Edith Sackett—who is Martha Manning's grandmother

John Pels Manny and his granddaughter, Edith Sackett—who is Martha Manning's grandmother

However, fortune proved fleeting: in 1855 Cyrus McCormick filed suit against J.H. Manny and Company, accusing Manny of patent infringement. McCormick sought damages of $400,000 and demanded J.H. Manny and Company cease all production. McCormick vs. Manny became a sensational lawsuit and featured some of the highest profile attorneys of the 19th century. Former U.S. Attorney General Reverdy Johnson represented McCormick while Manny hired future Secretary of War Edward M. Stanton and future President Abraham Lincoln as consul. However, Lincoln was unable to contribute due to the trial venue moving from Chicago to Cincinnati. 

After Manny’s victory, he sent Lincoln his $1,000 retainer fee, which Lincoln initially returned because he felt he “did not contribute to the defense enough to earn the fee.” But, as Martha informed us, the future President and Manny’s correspondence did not end there: “John Manny sent the returned check back to Lincoln and he used it to fund his Lincoln v. Douglas debate!”

John Pels Manny had the gorgeous mirror in his home until it was passed down to Martha’s father,  who displayed it within his office at the Howard Center in Rockford. In 1986, it was passed down to Martha. Now without room to house the magnificent piece, she turned once again to The Conservation Center. “In 2009 I sold my home. I do have another storage unit in Rockford that is climate-controlled, but I knew The Center in Chicago was the place to have it.” After many tours of the space and all the technical advantages assessed—from barcode inventory systems to a secure storage environment—she knew she made the right choice. Since then, the mirror has been watched over by the careful eyes of our fine art storage department. It has also become one of the longest-stored objects at The Center. Housed within 7,500 square feet of highly organized storage space supervised by expert art handlers, the mirror is kept safe at all times. "I'm not ready to give up this mirror yet," Martha said. "I'm hoping that someday one of my three children will have room to house and display this historical object."

Justin Gilman

The business end of Twin. In charge of landing interesting new projects, making clients happy, and coffee. A maker of beautiful music and master of oral sound effects. A secret Jim Henson nerd. Will always find ways of working smarter. Will never participate in karaoke.

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