When I was a child, a weathered old document always hung somewhere, in a hall or the corner of a room in whatever house we were in. I never knew what it was, but was always intrigued by the elaborate decorations that wound their way around the script in the center. Small empty wooden rowboats, tall masted ships, winged cherubs playing trumpets, a strange recumbent lion with an agonized woman’s face, a proud explorer with his boot on some sort of fallen shield and planting an enormous billowing flag, dark clouds and lightning flashes, all surrounded lines of spidery old-fashioned writing. It seemed to be a certificate of some sort, honoring someone named Henry Bicker, whose name was inscribed in the center. His name was all I could make out; I couldn’t read any of the rest of it, as the letters were strange and illegible and included words like whereof and hereunto. All I knew was that Henry Bicker (the one word I could read) was someone important to me, as my middle name was Bicker. But why I had that name, I didn’t know.
When I was older, I learned from my father what the document was: a certificate stating that Henry Bicker was a member of the Society of Cincinnati, a group composed of officers who were members of George Washington’s staff during the Revolutionary War. The document was signed by George Washington, as well as by Henry Knox, Secretary of the Treasury, and was dated October 1, 1785. My father told me that Henry Bicker was a direct ancestor of his, and that his wife was Jane Bicker, after whom I was named.
The society took its name from the Roman hero Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, a farmer who left his plow in the middle of the field to become the leader of a successful military campaign. When the fighting was over he returned to his plow and went back to farming. He was believed to represent an ideal of the citizen-soldier. In recognition of this, The Society of Cincinnati claims to be founded “to preserve the ideals of fellowship of the officers of the Continental Army who served in the Revolutionary War.” Membership is expected to pass down through the generations, from oldest son to oldest son. It is the oldest hereditary society in the United States.
In my family, it turned out that there were no sons at all in the generations that followed Henry Bicker, so the document was passed from oldest daughter to oldest daughter, finally coming to my father sometime in the 1930’s. My father told me that an uncle of his, who wanted the document himself, had spent considerable effort and money trying to establish his right to membership in the Society. However, the governors of the Society had not accepted his credentials, so the document remained on the walls of my parents’ house. After my father’s death, my three siblings decided that the document should come to me, as I bear the name of Jane Bicker, Henry Bicker’s wife.
The document moved with me from Connecticut to Massachusetts and eventually to California, where it hung on a dark wall, to protect it from fading in the western sun. However, one day in May 2019, I noticed that its frame was chipped and cracked and needed obvious repair. I took it to Galleria Scola in Oakland, originally only for repair to the frame. Elida Scola recognized the historical value of the document and offered not only to repair the frame but to have the document cleaned in order to preserve it. I was glad to leave it in her capable hands. A few weeks later, I picked it up: a document clear of years of dust and dirt, the writing legible, in a remade frame, and covered in non-reflective glass. It is a treasure. I will always be grateful to Elida Scola and her gallery for their expertise in repair and restoration.