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Yes, but was it graffiti?

the word graffiti done in graffiti

As I’ve been traveling about this past year gathering photos and stories on historical sites across Delaware, I’ve been amused as well as entertained by the fact that curators of historic properties often love pointing out graffiti on those properties.

We think of graffiti today as an act of vandalism: a defiant political statement spray painted across a highway bridge, for example. But technically the word means simply “a scribbling.” It’s the plural of graffito, an Italian word which is a diminutive form of graffio, “a scratch or scribble.” A scribbling is neutral.

Two different curators showed me scribbles that indeed fit this non-vandalism, apolitical category, and instead feel more like simply statements of ownership.

First up is the phrase “A. Finney” carved neatly on the side of the Hale-Byrnes house in Stanton, DE. Between the Warwick Hale who built the house and the Daniel Byrnes who ended up owning it, there was David Finney, who bought the house from Warwick’s son Samuel and owned it for about 20 years. Finney’s wife was named Mary Ann, and was known to go by Ann. The two had a daughter named Ann. So, which of these women was likely the one who carved her name in the wall? We’ll never know. History doesn’t tell us.

Hand carved lettering reads "A. Finney" in brick

Next up, over on the western border of Delaware sits the town of Marydel, sited along the banks of the Choptank River. And where that river meets Mud Mill Pond sits what is today known as the Choptank Mills, a gristmill built in 1756 by one David Marsdin. The mill has had many owners over the years and has been known as Muncy’s Mill, Furtad’s Mill, Smith’s Mills, Mud Mills, Choptank Mills and Medford’s Mill. But never Ford’s Mill. And yet, down among the concrete foundations of the mill is the scratching “D Ford”.

words 'd ford' scratched into concrete support at Medford's Mill

Now, given that the Medford family owned this mill from 1898-1987, the chances are very high that this graffiti item actually read ‘Medford’ originally, and that the wooden beam was set across this concrete slab after the graffiti was scrawled. The ‘Me’ portion of the scrawl has been obliterated.

Then there are the graffiti scrawls that clearly were created by mischievous pranksters who simply wanted to leave their mark. The Camden Friends Meeting House in the town of the same name features the carved initials “EJ” plainly visible on the back of one of its pews. We can imagine a fidgety teenager, shuffling in the pew as the preacher drones on, pulling out his penknife and having at it.

And yes, in this particular case we DO know it was a he. Young Eskill Jenkins (1822-1873) was caught red handed by someone in the congregation, who mentioned the incident in church notes. Jenkins grew up in the church, was a lifelong member, and is buried in the cemetery adjoining the church:

And finally there’s the vandalistic carving of one ‘HB,’ who left his/her mark on the door of the Old Swedes Church in Wilmington, DE in 1838. Why did ‘HB’ do it? Certainly not to be noticed by the international art world, as many of today’s graffiti creators aim to be. Was HB a restless, bored young person who simply needed to say to the world “I am”? A rebel who needed to thumb his/her nose at polite society? Don’t know; HB was never caught, never on record.

These are the kind of stories that tend not to make it into the history books. But they ARE part of history, and help us to remember that history is more than just dry dates and dusty documents. The people who lived before us share many of our own tics and foibles. These types of stories remind us of that.

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