A Father’s Legacy of Art and Collecting

Who knew a day in the woods would lead to the creation of a bottle collection, now housed in the galleries at Kykuit, the Rockefeller Estate? Former U.S. Vice President and New York Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller enjoyed bringing his two young sons Nelson Jr. and Mark antique bottle-hunting on parts of the family property in Pocantico Hills, New York. Referring to old maps, Nelson would show them places on the estate where farms used to be, and the excavations would begin. They uncovered some amazing old bottles!

A bottle labeled “milk of magnesia” (click to enlarge)

They would take their newly-found treasures down to the basement, fill up the big sink, and carefully clean them. Nelson showed his sons reference books to find information about vintage and antique glass. The boys would then look up the bottle designs and markings in these books. Some of the blue bottles in this collection contained ointments for medical use. One bottle, likely from the 1920s, is labeled “milk of magnesia”. There are also clear bottles for milk products, from when milk was still delivered to homes. One oddly-shaped milk bottle, with a neck that balloons out, was used to separate the cream from the milk before the process of homogenization became widely used. Other beverage bottles are from soft drinks and liquor: one is labeled “gin” and another “Cointreau.” Together the boys selected some of the bottles and worked with their father to arrange them artfully by color and size in a glass display case in Kykuit’s modern art galleries. Today, the bottle display is still a special part of galleries.

The full collection displayed at Kykuit (click to enlarge)

For Nelson, this exercise was an important way of sharing his passion for collecting art with his sons. Nelson’s interest in all forms of art was a direct influence of his mother Abby Aldrich Rockefeller and the institution she helped to found, the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Nelson often said that art was an “integral” part of his life “because the enrichment and the spiritual as well as the aesthetic values that derive from it are incomparable.”  He followed in his mother’s footsteps to support the arts and served MoMA as a member of its Junior Advisory Committee, followed by later roles as trustee, treasurer, and eventually president of the museum. As Nelson was taught to appreciate art at a young age, so too, were his children. Introducing his young boys to the art of collecting and appreciating history in a way that they would understand was pivotal in teaching them about art and its many forms, from paintings to everyday glass objects. Although these bottles wouldn’t have been considered “high art” of the kind at MoMA or even throughout the rest of Kykuit’s galleries, Nelson prized them for their decorative qualities and historical value, and especially because his boys had found them. Perhaps that should be the take-away of this story: the pleasure that art brings to our lives and the fun families can have together while pursuing a shared passion.

How about a Kykuit-inspired Father’s Day activity?

Unless you live on a historic property, it might be difficult to find old bottles in your backyard. Why not take the kids out to collect different sizes and shapes of rocks. Bring them home, clean them up, and make observations about them. What colors are they? Can you identify any fossils in them? Are there any special features? Can this be the start of a small rock collection? For larger rocks, create an inspirational rock garden. Write a word of encouragement on each rock using a magic marker. Place each of the rocks near a pathway or tree, in your neighborhood. What better way to bring a smile and inspiration to someone walking by who finds your creation! Everyone could use some words of encouragement. And who knows…rock collecting today might inspire your children to pursue a new lifelong hobby.

Want to learn more about old bottles, like those in the Kykuit galleries? Check out this blog post, all about bottle collecting.