Holidays Past: A Bartow Christmas in the Civil War Era

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Carolers in period costume enliven Bartow-Pell’s holiday festivities at our annual Candlelight Tours.

The year is 1860, and it’s Christmastime at the Bartow estate. The family’s home is in the country, but New York City, with all of its holiday temptations, is nearby. The start of the Civil War is just a few months away.

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Eastman Johnson (1824–1906). Christmas-Time, The Blodgett Family, 1864. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Whitney Blodgett, 1983, 1983.486. http://www.metmuseum.org

Most of the Bartow children—now adults and teenagers—were still living at the mansion with their parents. The eldest, George, was thirty-two, and the youngest, Theodoret, was fourteen. Robert Erskine and Reginald Heber were students at Columbia College. Two Bartow daughters were also at home—Henrietta, seventeen, and Clarina, twenty-two, who would become a bride within the year. Their thirty-year-old sister, Catharine, and her husband, the Reverend Henry E. Duncan, lived in Fishkill with their four young children. Duncan’s duties as rector at St. Anna’s Church in Fishkill Landing (now Beacon) would have kept their family in Dutchess County for the holidays. Uncle William Augustus Bartow (Robert Bartow’s brother) and his family lived nearby in East Fishkill.

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Holiday trees at BPMM celebrate the past, present, and future.

Like many Americans in the 1860s, the Bartow family probably had a Christmas tree, a custom that had been introduced from England and Germany and had recently become wildly popular here. In 1850, the delights of the Christmas tree were widely publicized in the United States through an engraving published by Godey’s Lady’s Book that was adapted from a British version printed in the Illustrated London News in 1848. The earlier engraving depicted Queen Victoria and her German-born consort, Prince Albert, gathered around a decorated tree with their children.

The Bartows were Episcopalians (and were connected at various times to most of the local Episcopal churches). This worked out well in terms of celebrating Christmas in the mid-nineteenth century because some denominations, such as those with Calvinist doctrines, traditionally frowned upon what they considered an undue emphasis on Christ’s birth and disapproved of the holiday’s pageantry and its connection to the Roman Catholic Church. The New York Times reported on December 26, 1862: “All the Catholic and Episcopal Churches, and some of [the] other denominations, were beautifully decorated with evergreen wreaths and borders, and in the windows of many houses were hung the wreath and cross.” The article further explained: “Christmas is specially observed as a festival by members of the Protestant Episcopal communion. . . . All their churches are beautifully decorated . . . twined with holly, fir, laurel and hemlock, and the chancels are perfect groves of wintry verdure.” People also adorned their houses with fresh greenery and wreaths.

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Santa Claus. Harper’s Weekly, December 22, 1860. In this engraving, parents buy gifts and toys from holiday shops while their children dream of Santa Claus. Popular presents included dolls, sleds, skates, rocking horses, miniature tea sets, and Noah’s Arks.

Gifts were part of the fun. Although Black Friday and Cyber Monday were years away, alluring shop windows and enticing holiday advertisements encouraged people in the 1860s to get into the spirit of the season. And since the Bartows lived so near New York City, a shopper’s paradise, they likely bought some of their gifts at city stores. The Times reported on December 24, 1864:

In fact the whole business portion of our city seems to be transformed into one grand curiosity shop for the display of holiday gifts; and old Santa Claus variously disguised in pantaloons and petticoats, broadcloth and silks, representing manhood and youth, matron and miss, can be seen hurrying about our streets, peering into the shop-windows . . . Wherever one turns . . .  he beholds a glittering array of useful and ornamental goods, toys and nicknacks [sic].

Books were also popular presents, including some with gilt-decorated bindings and illustrations that were sometimes presented in holiday gift editions.

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The Sleigh Race. Hand-colored lithograph published by N. Currier, New York, ca. 1848. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The Bartows would also have enjoyed seasonal outdoor activities such as sleigh rides. In fact, William Augustus Bartow wrote in his journal about sleighing at his farm in Fishkill. And people loved to ice skate both in the country and in urban places like Central Park. On Christmas Eve in 1864, a Times reporter rhapsodized: “Nature has donned her proper Christmas robes of white and ‘The sledges with the bells, Silver bells!’ [Edgar Allan Poe] furnish the merry music so appropriate to the season; the considerate kindness of Jack Frost has covered our lakes and ponds with a firm glassy flooring, very inviting to the lovers of good skating.”

 

 

The Civil War affected every American. This included the Bartows, even though their sons did not fight. Locally, the Union Army had a military hospital on David’s Island and a training facility and prisoner-of-war camp on Hart Island. The women of Christ Church in Pelham volunteered at the hospital, and the New York Herald reported that the Soldiers’ Relief Association gave two hundred dollars for a Christmas festival and funds for a Christmas tree on David’s Island in 1864.

Christmas during wartime, with its idealized domestic circle around the family hearth, helped people to cope with uncertainty, loss, tragedy, and a divided nation. And a fantasy world of Christmas trees, Santa Claus, beautiful gifts, holiday food, cozy firesides, and winter wonderlands gave people an escape from a country torn apart by war. It is not surprising that newspaper accounts sometimes seem incongruous and range from merry to sentimental to grim.

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Thomas Nast (1840–1902). Christmas, 1863. Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, December 26, 1863. A Union soldier returns home on holiday furlough surrounded by his family and Yuletide images of Santa Claus, stockings, and Christmas dinner.

The New York Times presented varying perspectives on Christmas as the war progressed. On December 26, 1860, despite rumblings of war, a Times writer joked about the national conflict in his description of a jolly holiday:

As far as concerned “secession,” it was a subject of gratulation with them that they were enabled to secede from business for a day. Evidently, New-York is not yet ruined, nor if yesterday be a criterion, expects to be. For ourselves, we never saw indications of a jollier Christmas.

Exactly one year later, the newspaper changed its tune:

For reasons but too evident to the sense of every citizen, the high festival of the Christian Church . . . was not celebrated yesterday with that boisterous and exuberant hilarity which has for a generation past distinguished its recurrence in this City. . . . Too many were far away, exposed to privation, wounds and death; too many had already paid the debt of patriotism in the sacrifice of their lives, and still too many more were groaning on beds of sickness or mutilation.

And in 1864, although the country was still at war, on Christmas Eve the Times reported:

A walk through Broadway or the Bowery at this time would not convey to a stranger the idea that we were a people impoverished by an exhausted war, overburdened with taxes and oppressed with woe. Gaily decorated shops, filled with articles of convenience and luxury, crowded with eager customers, attest the prosperity of the people. Never before has there been such a display on the part of the storekeepers, never so much lavishness on the part of purchasers.

By Christmas 1865, the war was over, and a Times writer reflected on the past several years:

The angelic song sung to us by choirs, of “Peace on earth and good will to men,” seemed a mockery, heard, as it were, amid the groans of the wounded and the curses of the contending armies. Then by every fireside was a spectre on the Christmas morning. The son, or brother, or husband, was far away in the wintry camp, or fighting foot by foot on the bloody battle-field, or lying lonely in the hospital, or waiting hopelessly in the prison-pen.

But the author also had a message of hope, saying that this year “has come again a Christmas Day of PEACE and UNION and LIBERTY,” a sentiment that the Bartows would certainly have echoed.

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Thomas Nast. The Union Christmas Dinner. Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, December 31, 1864. In this poignant image of reconciliation, President Lincoln invites the South to join the Union at the symbolic banquet table.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Chicken Pie and Blindman’s Buff: What You Might Not Know about an Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving

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W. S. L. Jewett. Thanksgiving—A Thanksgiving Dinner Among Their Descendents (detail). Harper’s Weekly, November 30, 1867

Pies, pies, and more pies. It must be Thanksgiving in the nineteenth century.

Pumpkin pies, cranberry pies, huckleberry pies, cherry pies, green-currant pies, peach, pear, and plum pies, custard pies, apple pies, Marlborough-pudding pies [apple custard pie]—pies with top crusts, and pies without—pies adorned with all sorts of fanciful flutings and architectural strips laid across and around, and otherwise varied, attested the boundless fertility of the feminine mind. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Oldtown Folks, 1869

In addition to pies for dessert, chicken pies were a favorite Thanksgiving staple. They were served during the main course, which featured roasted turkey in the starring role. Like today, “the consumption of gobblers” was “prodigious” (New York Herald, 1868).

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Wild turkey at Bartow-Pell

The roasted turkey took precedence on this occasion, being placed at the head of the table; and well did it become its lordly station, sending forth the rich odour of its savoury stuffing, and finely covered with the frost of the basting. . . . A goose and pair of ducklings occupied side stations on the table, the middle being graced, as it always is on such occasions, by that rich burgomaster of the provisions, called a chicken pie. This pie, which is wholly formed of the choicest parts of fowls, enriched and seasoned with a profusion of butter and pepper and covered with an excellent puff paste is, like the celebrated pumpkin pie, an indispensable part of a good and true Yankee Thanksgiving. Sarah Josepha Hale, Northwood, 1827

Sarah Josepha Hale (1788­–1879) later became the high-profile editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book. At a time when Thanksgiving Day was determined by individual states, she used her position to encourage the federal government to fix a standard date. Finally, in 1863, President Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring the “last Thursday of November” as the official observation of Thanksgiving.

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Winslow Homer (1836–1910). Thanksgiving Day—The Church Porch. Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, December 23, 1865

Ready for a good sermon? For many people in the nineteenth century, Thanksgiving Day started with a morning church service. In 1861, a reporter for the New York Herald wrote: “All the churches will hold forenoon service, and the pastors, it is expected, will treat their congregations with sermons a little above the common order.” Organists and choirs provided special music, and alms were collected for the poor. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in Oldtown Folks:

Great as the preparations were for the dinner, everything was so contrived that not a soul in the house should be kept from the morning service of Thanksgiving in the church, and from listening to the Thanksgiving sermon, in which the minister was expected to express his views freely concerning the politics of the country . . . But it is to be confessed that, when the good man got carried away by the enthusiasm of his subject . . . , anxious glances [were] exchanged between good wives . . . [who had] a tender reference to the turkeys and chickens and chicken pies which might possibly be overdoing in the ovens at home.

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The dining table at Bartow-Pell, set for the fruit course with the tablecloth removed

Time to eat! In well-to-do households like that of the Bartows, the table was covered with a snowy white damask tablecloth and set with glittering crystal, gleaming silver, and decanters placed in the corners of the table and filled with imported wines. (Alternately, currant wine and cider were popular and affordable beverages that are frequently mentioned in period sources.) Sometimes two damask tablecloths were used—the top cloth was removed after the main course to reveal a clean one for the pastries and confectionaries. At Thanksgiving, pies were always on the dessert menu, but did you know that plum pudding was a traditional American dish? At the end of the meal, a fruit course was served on the bare mahogany table (but this practice was outdated by the late nineteenth century).

Now, how about a game of blindman’s buff? Or maybe a polka in the parlor?

The dinner being cleared away, we youngsters, already excited to a tumult of laughter, tumbled in to the best room, under the supervision of Uncle Bill, to relieve ourselves with a game of ‘blind-man’s-buff.’ Harriet Beecher Stowe, Oldtown Folks, 1869

There was the annual game of blind-man’s buff, where the oldest were happy to become children again. . . And when the youngest of the party had reluctantly retired, and the evening circle was enlarged by the addition of a few invited friends, the merry dance succeeded . . . and many a laughing girl took her partner. T. Gray Jr., “New England Thanksgiving,” The Boston Book, 1836

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Thomas Nast (1840–1902). Uncle Sam’s Thanksgiving Dinner. Harper’s Weekly, November 20, 1869. This political cartoon applauds multiculturalism and ethnic diversity in America and supports the 15th Amendment and universal suffrage in the post-Civil War era.

Thanksgiving was a multigenerational holiday and a time for families to come together, just as it is today. In 1870, for example, the New York Herald described the day:

The festival was extensively celebrated yesterday in this city, and, indeed, throughout the country. Families were reunited after many months of separation . . . while stories of the doings of the past year fell from the lips of loved wanderers and brightened or darkened the faces of those who listened. 

The temperance movement used family holidays such as Thanksgiving as a way to remind people about the evils of drink and promote their campaign against alchohol consumption, warning that intemperance threatened families, morality, and happiness. On December 1, 1850, the Journal of the American Temperance Union encouraged families to sign a temperance pledge at Thanksgiving:

There are family gatherings . . . where intemperance has done its bitter work . . . We tremble for the man who . . . will put out the light and joy of a single family . . . In these family gatherings let the pledge be signed, and signed by all. . . . Let no child hereafter say, through our neglect my father is a drunkard, and no stain be fixed on our national escutcheon.

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New York City—Thanksgiving Dinner at the Colored Orphan Asylum, 1874. Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library

Let’s not forget the poor and other marginalized populations. Charity was a big deal at Thanksgiving. As Harriet Beecher Stowe put it, “Thanksgiving time was the time for errands of mercy and beneficence through the country.” And in his Thanksgiving Day sermon in 1868, her brother, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher, exhorted his Brooklyn congregation to “go hence . . . and with a gentle heart and liberal hand dispense your charities to the poor and needy.” On the same day, according to the New York Herald, seven hundred pounds of poultry were served at the Blackwell’s Island Asylum, and recent immigrants on Ward’s Island enjoyed a good dinner and “various kinds of entertainments.”

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Pumpkins from our Children’s Garden

Let’s get ready for the big day (and bake some pies)!

Come, uncles and cousins; come, nieces and aunts;

Come, nephews and brothers, no won’ts and no can’ts;

Put business, and shopping, and school-books away;

The year has rolled round, it is Thanksgiving-day.

 

Come home from the college, ye ringlet-haired youth,

Come home from your factories, Ann, Kate, and Ruth;

From the anvil, the counter, the farm come away;

Home, home with you, all, it is Thanksgiving-day.

Henry Ware Jr., “A Thanksgiving Song,” 1850

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Here Lyes the Body: The Pell Family Burial Ground

img_4839Who isn’t intrigued by the idea of a cemetery around Halloween? For many people, an eerie frisson or two isn’t such a bad thing during this season. So now is a good time to visit the Pell family burial ground at Bartow-Pell, even though we have had no reported ghost sightings.

A short path lined with horse chestnuts leads to this romantic little woodland cemetery, nestled under towering shade trees. The seventeenth-century Pell manor house, which tradition says was destroyed during the American Revolution, once stood nearby. Six tombstones dating from 1748 to 1790—including one for Joseph Pell, the Fourth Lord of the Manor of Pelham—surround a memorial tablet added in the nineteenth century. The other stones are for Pell’s widow, Phoebe; their young married daughter Susannah; a toddler son of Phoebe and her third husband, James Bennet(t); Saloma Pell, who was also a toddler; and “Isec” (Isaac) Pell, a teenager. The old cemetery has been an object of historical interest since at least 1848, when Robert Bolton Jr. described it in A History of the County of Westchester. Its location on ancestral land made the burial ground a venerated site for the Pell family; they added the large memorial stone in 1862 and a fence with inscribed granite posts in 1891.

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This photograph in the museum’s collection shows the cemetery after 1891 when the fence was added. The open water views contrast with today’s wooded landscape.

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Joseph Pell’s age when he died has sometimes been transcribed as 31. However, by analyzing the numerals in the date of 1752, it is clear that the stone carver made sevens with down-slanted tops and the numeral one as a straight line.

Joseph Pell was thirty-seven when he died in 1752. Probate records indicate that his death took place shortly after that of his father, Thomas Pell II, the Third Lord of the Manor. According to Joseph’s will—written on August 31, 1752, when he was “very sick and weak”—he and his wife “Phebe” had six children (three sons and three daughters), and their education was important to him. His will stipulates: “The income of my estate is to be used for maintaining and bringing up my children to good learning.” His wife and his “loving friend” John Bartow (1715–1802) were among the executors. This particular John Bartow was known within the family as “old Uncle John.” He was an unmarried son of the Reverend John Bartow, who had emigrated from England to New York in 1702.

Bartow and Pell genealogy is complex. The tapestry of intermarriages and other relationships can make one’s head spin. But the bottom line is that in 1836, when Robert Bartow purchased the property that had once belonged to his grandfather John Bartow (and to his great-great-uncle Joseph Pell), he took possession of an estate with deep connections to both his Bartow and Pell ancestors.

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Phoebe (or “Phebe”) Pell was Joseph Pell’s widow. She died in 1790 “in the 70th year of her age.” At his death in 1752, Joseph left his wife “£400, and a good bed and furniture, and 6 chairs, a looking-glass, a trunk and a table, and the use of all lands until my sons, Joseph and Thomas, are of age.” Records indicate that she married two more times. In 1758, Phoebe Pell wed Boswell Dawson, and in 1762, she married James Bennett. Their son John Bennett died at the age of twenty-one months on August 6, 1765, and is buried in the Pell plot, as is his mother.

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John Bennett was twenty-one-months old when he died in 1765, but in recent years, his age has sometimes been transcribed as “2 months.” However, the numeral “1” is still faintly visible, and “21 months” is given in older inscriptions.

The grave of Joseph and Phoebe’s daughter Susannah is also in the cemetery. She married Benjamin Drake in 1759 and was the first of his four wives. Susannah was only twenty-two when she died on March 4, 1763, probably from complications following the birth of her second son, Benjamin, on February 21.

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The exact relationship of Saloma Pell and Isaac Pell to the other people in the cemetery is unknown. Saloma died in 1760, a few months before her second birthday. Writing in 1878, Evelyn Bartow described the burial ground and erroneously lists “Salome” as a child of Joseph Pell, but Joseph died seven years before Saloma was born. “Isec” (or Isaac) Pell’s tombstone is the earliest in the plot. The inscription has been variously transcribed, sometimes leading to the interpretation that he died on December 14, 1748. However, a closer reading indicates that Isaac died at the age of fourteen on an unknown date in 1748. Further research will perhaps reveal more about Saloma and Isaac.

People of means, like the Pells, could afford to hire a stonemason to make a tombstone for their loved one. Early Colonial stones often featured memento mori, such as a death’s head, as grim reminders of an uncertain eternity and the Last Judgment. But the Age of Enlightenment and the Great Awakening produced a more benevolent philosophy towards the afterlife. Accordingly, in the mid-eighteenth century, cherub motifs began to appear on headstones as serene and hopeful reminders of heaven.

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Saloma Pell’s elegant stone is attributed to the prolific carver John Zuricher. The toddler died in 1760.

The Pell cemetery includes stones in several styles. The earliest ones belong to Isaac Pell (1748) and Joseph Pell (1752) and appear to be by the same hand. The crude letterforms are similar, the spelling is poor, and they are made from the same type of fieldstone. Each has a simple pinwheel or star motif at the top. The most elaborate and beautiful marker belongs to Saloma Pell. It has been attributed to the master stonemason John Zuricher, who was active in New York, New Jersey, and elsewhere from the 1740s to the 1770s. Stylistic elements found in Zuricher’s work appear on Saloma’s headstone and include a winged cherub’s head with a square face and low-slung puffy cheeks surmounted by a crown.

As is commonly known, life expectancy in the eighteenth century was a dire prospect. The shadow of death was omnipresent. Disease could carry away several family members in one fell swoop, and many people lost precious young children to scarlet fever and other illnesses. Childbirth was perilous, and postpartum infections could turn deadly, as may have been the case with Susannah Pell Drake. Primitive medical practices sometimes did more harm than good.

 

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Charles Willson Peale (American, 1741–1827). Mrs. Peale Lamenting the Death of Her Child (Rachel Weeping), 1772, enlarged 1776, retouched 1818. Oil on canvas. The Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of The Barra Foundation, Inc., 1977. http://www.philamuseum.org. The Peales’ daughter died of smallpox in 1772. This scene depicts the heartbreak that many parents experienced after the loss of a child and the hope of reuniting in heaven.

 

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Mourning dress, 1786. Journal des Luxus und der Moden

When someone died, a family member or friend stayed with the body and kept “watch.” Corpses were dressed in shrouds, and an open coffin allowed people to pay their respects until the funeral took place. (To learn more about shrouds, listen to Colonial Williamsburg’s podcast.) Black mourning clothes were donned by the well-to-do, a custom that had been introduced to Colonial America from Europe. And, like a macabre party favor, funeral goers received mourning gloves and memorial gold rings as a tribute to the dead. According to research published by the New England Historical Society, Andrew Eliot, a minister at Boston’s North Church, amassed 2,940 pairs of funeral gloves over thirty-two years beginning in 1742. (To reduce this stockpile, the enterprising pastor sold many of them.) In addition, friends and family of the deceased enjoyed a large repast and alcoholic beverages as part of the funeral rituals.

Thanks to a 2012 Partners in Preservation grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation and American Express, Bartow-Pell was able to restore the Pell family burial ground along with the mansion’s terraced garden. The cemetery and its beautiful setting are lovely in all seasons—autumn, winter, spring, and summer. But, for now, happy Halloween!

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Bluestockings and Blue Bloods: The Pelham Priory School for Young Ladies

The girls came from all over. They were daughters of the nation’s elite, of people such as Robert E. Lee and Lincoln’s former Secretary of War Edward Stanton. They were Lorillards, Lefferts, and maybe even Bartows. In the nineteenth century, these “young females of good family connections” were students at the legendary Pelham Priory, a school for young ladies about a mile north of the Bartow mansion. Extant records are limited, but we can still trace various students and make some intriguing discoveries.

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William Rickarby Miller (1818–1893). Pelham Priory, Main Portal, 1856. Watercolor on paper. Collection of Catherine Boericke. Washington Irving reportedly provided yellow bricks from the old church at Sleepy Hollow to form the date “1838” above the door.

The Reverend Robert Bolton (1788–1857) was from a prominent family in Savannah, Georgia. In 1807 he went to England, the land of his forebears, to work in the Liverpool office of the Boltons’ cotton-exporting business. In 1810, he married Anne Jay (1793–1859), the daughter of the Reverend William Jay of Bath, and the Anglo-American couple had fourteen children. In 1836, the Boltons left England and moved to Westchester County, New York, where in 1838 they designed and built the Pelham Priory (now known as the Bolton Priory). Extensive gardens and grounds surrounded the massive Gothic Revival building, which overlooked Long Island Sound.

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William Rickarby Miller (1818–1893). Gazebo on the Grounds of Pelham Priory, 1856. Watercolor on paper. Collection of Catherine Boericke. This scene depicts young ladies in the Priory gardens.

The Boltons started the Priory school sometime in the late 1830s, when a family friend from Savannah brought his daughter to Pelham to be educated with the Bolton children. By 1840, the new school—which followed the doctrine of the Episcopal Church—was firmly established under the supervision of the Reverend and Mrs. Bolton. Girls studied literature, mathematics, Latin, French, music, art, deportment, religion, and other subjects. Describing his parents’ approach to education, William Jay Bolton wrote that “young ladies could be highly educated without the opera, without novels, without dancing.” Emily Earle Lindsley, a Priory pupil whose father was one of the teachers, sets the scene for us:

The Armory, a large room in the center of the house, was where my father and one or two others held their classes. They sat at the head of a long, black oak table, made by the brothers Bolton, from wood which grew on the property. . . . A log fire burned in the large stone fire place . . . Stained glass windows made by one of the sons of Mr. Bolton filled the east end of the room. Mounted suits of armor, the walls decorated with a variety of swords, daggers, spears, and other warlike implements, carved high backed chairs from the time of Charles the First, and many other objects of artistic and historical interest made a most unusual setting for recitations.

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Margaret Deland

In 1850 Robert and Anne Bolton returned to live permanently in England, leaving their eldest daughter, Nanette (1815–1884), in charge of the school with the help of her younger sister Adele (1830–1911). Nanette Bolton’s approach to admitting new students is wryly described by noted author and former pupil Margaret Deland (1857–1945) in her memoir Golden Yesterdays:

The Priory, which, back in the 1830’s, opened its stately evangelical doors to “young females of good family connections,” would be today an anachronism. That the doors did not open to everybody was not due to snobbishness—it was a serious sense of responsibility. Also, personally, Miss Bolton preferred girls from below Mason and Dixon’s line. Philadelphians were received, and a few “young females” from the Southwest—which is how we Pittsburghers got in—this was long before the mushroom fortunes of Pittsburgh began to cast sooty shadows on us. New York was so worldly a place that Miss Bolton only received its girls if their parents were, as she expressed it, “earnest persons,” as well as of good family connections. It was rumored that she said “No” to Boston. Boston was not worldly, perhaps, but it was sadly unorthodox. There were—Miss Bolton was sorry to say so—but there were many Unitarians in Boston—and in quite good families, too!

The school closed in the early 1880s after Nanette’s health declined. In 1883, a former student, Adele Sampson Stevens (later the Duchess de Dino), bought the Priory and gave it to her daughter Daisy as a wedding present on the day she married Frederick Allen in 1892.

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The album includes an arrangement of trompe l’oeil calling cards.

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Wreaths of Friendship, 1860s. Friendship album owned by Priory student Fanny J. Everest of Hamden, Connecticut. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mary Means Huber, 1981

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Monarè is one of four tales by Mrs. Richard S. Greenough (Sarah Dana Loring) in Arabesques (1872).

Some Priory girls have compelling stories. Sarah Dana Loring (1827–1885), for example, was a novelist and poet. In 1846, she married Richard S. Greenough, an American sculptor from Boston who worked in Europe for much of his career. Sarah attended the Boltons’ school in the early 1840s, and her melodramatic novelette Monarè recalls the Priory’s air of Gothic medievalism. This supernatural tale—from Arabesques (1872)—is replete with castles, suits of armor, a captive maiden, and a heroic sword-bearing knight (and a werewolf!). As a fifteen-year-old student, Sarah appeared in the March 1842 edition of the Bolton family’s handwritten newspaper, the Pelham Chronicle (Town of Pelham archives). This delightful glimpse at the lighter side of the school environment, as “reported exclusively for the Chronicle,” describes a (mock) trial in which Miss Sarah Dana Loring and other plaintiffs teasingly accuse the Boltons’ fifteen-year-old daughter Abby of the crime of “scandalous speeches and a seditious libel.” “The prisoner looked very cheerful [and] had very rosy cheeks.”  Miss Sarah Dana Loring was called to testify and “looked very wildly around [and] turned up her nose at Miss Bolton the prisoner.” After calling Abby a rogue and “an actual torment,” she “stated that for a length of time past the prisoner has endeavored in every way possible to harass her feelings, calling her by the name of blue stocking, accusing her of talking about everything and everybody. . . . Here somebody in the gallery said that any how she had a touch of a blue stocking about her, which caused a roar of laughter, during which Miss Loring looked alternately white and red and seemed disposed to sit down.”

In Brief Memorials of an Only Daughter by the Reverend Henry P. Tappan (1844), we learn that “Mary C_____” was sent “to Mrs. B., who takes a few young ladies to educate with her own daughters.”  She arrived in July 1840 “after a rather tiresome sail of three hours” and almost immediately wrote to her mother complaining of homesickness. But she soon felt much better after a high-spirited excursion:

Mr. B. said we should sail out to one of the little islands with which the shore abounds, and carrying our provisions with us, we should there dine and take tea . . .  At ten o’clock in the morning we all sallied forth, thirty-one in number . . . [We had] the prettiest situation on the island . . . with Mr. B.’s tower with the flag flying, only now and then discernible . . . The dinner consisted of a lobster, an immense beefsteak-pie, a ham, a tongue, and a great basket full of clams, which we cooked by means of a fire made on the rocks. . . . After dinner we all went out sailing in the row boats . . . The other boat commenced by singing “God save the King,” and our boat answered by singing “Yankee Doodle.”

Mary lasted only a few months at the Priory. She was frail, probably consumptive, and pined for home. She died in Nice, France, in February 1842.

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Rosina Emmet Sherwood, ca. 1870. William Kurtz, photographer. Emmet family papers, 1792–1989, bulk 1851–1989. Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. http://www.aaa.si.edu/

In the 1870s, Henry James’s cousin Henrietta Temple (1853–1934) studied at the Priory. Her lively sister Minny (1845–1870), who died of consumption in nearby New Rochelle at the age of twenty-four, inspired the characters of Isabel Archer in The Portrait of a Lady and the ill-fated Milly Theale in The Wings of the Dove. Their relative, the artist Rosina Emmet Sherwood (1854–1948)—mother of the playwright Robert Sherwood—was also a Priory pupil.

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Alexandre Cabanel (French, 1823–1889). Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, 1876. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Bequest of Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, 1887, 87.15.82. www.metmuseum.org

Did the Bartow girls ever enroll as students at the Priory? The families were neighbors who shared a deep connection to the Episcopal Church, and we know that the Bartows were sometimes Robert Bolton’s parishioners. Furthermore, the Bartow children’s second cousins and contemporaries—Catherine Lorillard and Catharine Lorillard Wolfe—were Priory scholars in the 1840s and ‘50s. Perhaps one day we will find evidence that Catharine, Clarina, and Henrietta Bartow also attended this unique school.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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The Girl in the Portrait: Emma Beach and Mark Twain

The rain came down on wind-blown seas in New York Harbor on June 8, 1867, when about sixty-five passengers boarded the side-wheel steamship Quaker City for a highly publicized five-month “pleasure excursion” and pilgrimage to Europe and the Holy Land. The luxury voyage was led by Captain Charles C. Duncan, a friend of the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher (1813–1887), the superstar Congregationalist preacher and charismatic pastor of Brooklyn’s legendary Plymouth Church (whose sister was Harriet Beecher Stowe). Beecher was supposed to go on the trip but had to drop out, as did Civil War general William Tecumseh Sherman. However, among the ship’s well-heeled passengers were Moses Sperry Beach (1822–1892), a member of Plymouth Church and publisher of The Sun, a New York newspaper that once had the highest circulation in America, and his seventeen-year-old daughter Emma Beach (1849–1924).

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James Hamilton Shegogue (American, 1806–1872). Charles Yale Beach and His Sister Emma Beach, 1854. Oil on canvas. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. J. Luther Cleveland, 1966.03

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Emma Beach, ca. 1870. Abbott Handerson Thayer and Thayer Family papers, 1851–1999 (bulk 1881–1950). Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution

Emma and her brother Charles Yale Beach are shown as children in a portrait by James Hamilton Shegogue (1806–1872) that hangs in the dining room at Bartow-Pell. The portrait is above a sideboard that was made by the children’s grandfather Moses Yale Beach (1800–1868), who was a cabinetmaker as a young man. In 1819, he married Nancy Day, the sister of the founder of the New York Sun, and later became its publisher. Subsequently, his son Moses Sperry Beach took over the paper. Although the Beach family has no known connection to the Bartows, the portrait and sideboard fit our period of interpretation.

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Mark Twain. Carte de visite, Abdullah Frères, Constantinople, 1867. This photograph was taken in Constantinople but inscribed and dated “Saml Clemens, Jaffa, Sept. 30, 1867.” Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-28851

In June 1867, Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as Mark Twain (1835–1910), was thirty-one, and his career as a journalist, humorist, and lecturer was taking off. He too joined the Quaker City tour but as a correspondent for the Alta California, a San Francisco newspaper. A couple of years later, in 1869, Twain published The Innocents Abroad, a best-selling travel book about the cruise based on accounts he wrote for American newspapers. This lively and sometimes satirical narrative chronicles the group’s travels but also pokes fun at Americans abroad, including some of his shipmates. Twain’s irreverent wit, jaunty prose, and occasional slang make for good reading.

Newspaper publisher Moses Beach threw a party for his fellow travelers the night before their departure. Each had paid the enormous sum of $1,250 for the trip, and their applications had been scrutinized by a committee. Twain wrote: “For months the great pleasure excursion to Europe and the Holy Land was chatted about in the newspapers everywhere in America and discussed at countless firesides.”  Anticipation and expectations were high. And after the deprivations of the Civil War, people were eager to travel. The ambitious itinerary included Gibraltar, Rome, Athens, Constantinople, Beirut, Jerusalem, Cairo, and other exotic places. The 1867 Exposition Universelle in Paris and a visit with Czar Alexander II and his family were highlights of the journey.

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Moses Sperry Beach. Illustration from The Innocents Abroad, 1869

According to a passenger list published in the New York Times, Emma Beach and her father were to be joined by Emma’s older brother Charles (“C. Y. Beach”), her companion in Bartow-Pell’s portrait. But Charles’s plans evidently changed, because he was not listed on the return voyage or in other accounts of the trip. Their mother, Chloe Beach, stayed in Brooklyn with the younger children.

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Henry Ward Beecher, 1855–65. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-cwpbh-03065

Author and scholar Debby Applegate discusses the close relationship between Henry Ward Beecher and the Beach family in her Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher. Moses Sperry Beach and his family joined Beecher’s Plymouth Church when they moved to Brooklyn Heights in 1854, the year that Shegogue painted the portrait of the Beach children. Moses Beach was a generous supporter of the church, and it wasn’t long before the Beach family developed a warm friendship with the Beechers. In fact, Applegate’s research reveals that Beecher probably had an adulterous relationship with Mrs. Beach and may have fathered her youngest child, who was born in 1867, about four months before the Quaker City set sail. Although Beecher was married, he had a reputation as a philanderer, and in 1875, he was accused of adultery with Elizabeth Tilton, another friend’s wife, but he was acquitted after a scandalous trial.

For Moses Beach, the Quaker City cruise must have served as a welcome distraction from his domestic woes. During the journey, Beach was not only a tourist but a working journalist, reporting about the extraordinary trip and writing thirty-seven articles for his newspaper, The Sun. He was one of several reporters on board, including Mark Twain.

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The Start, The Innocents Abroad, 1869

Meanwhile, Emma Beach enjoyed a shipboard flirtation with Twain, and the two were regular evening chess partners who later remained friends. Mark Twain “used to play chess with me and I now think that he purposely let me win—I was only seventeen,” Emma later wrote in a letter to Twain’s biographer Albert B. Paine. The travelers also corresponded after returning home. A letter to Emma from Twain in Washington, D.C., dated January 31, 1868, begins with the salutation “Shipmate, Ahoy!” In this letter he told “Miss Emma” that despite the absence of an invitation from Mrs. Beach: “I shall come without any invitation. I shall come & stay a month! . . . I know I shall be doing wrong—but then I do wrong every day, anyhow.” He also asked for her help in identifying some Old Master paintings that she had seen on the Quaker City trip:

And please tell me the names of the Murillo pictures that delighted you most . . . Remember, I am in a great straight, now, & it is hard to have to write about pictures when I don’t know anything about them. Hang the whole gang of old masters, I say! The idea that I have to go driveling about those dilapidated, antediluvian humbugs at this late day, is exasperating.

On a visit to New York earlier in the month, Mark Twain had stayed with his Quaker City roommate and reunited with some of their traveling companions, including Charlie Langdon, whose sister Olivia became Twain’s wife in 1870. “It was the unholiest gang that ever cavorted through Palestine, but those are the best boys in the world,” Twain wrote to his mother and sister on January 8, 1868. During his New York stay, the author was invited to dine at Henry Ward Beecher’s house in Brooklyn along with his “old Quaker City favorite, Emma Beach.” Twain’s letter continues: “We had a very gay time, if it was Sunday. . . . Henry Ward is a brick.” (For more letters, see the Mark Twain Project Online.)

Emma Beach’s adventures on the Quaker City and her friendship with Mark Twain are only part of her compelling life story. She became an artist known mostly for floral paintings and nature studies. And in 1891, she married American artist and naturalist Abbott Thayer (1849–1921) shortly after the death of his first wife, Kate Bloede, who had died in a sanatorium earlier that year after a long bout with depression. Emma, a close friend of the couple, had helped the family during Kate’s illness. Emma and Abbott Thayer lived in Dublin, New Hampshire. She assisted her husband and helped illustrate Concealing-Coloration in the Animal Kingdom, a controversial study of camouflage by Thayer and his son Gerald. Emma died in 1924 at the age of seventy-four. She spent her final days with her sisters Ella and Violet at their home in Peekskill, New York.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Quills and Steel: Using Pens to Interpret the Past

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Why does the pen-maker do wrong, and try to make others as bad as himself? Because he makes the people steal (steel) pens, and says they do right (write). Cassell’s Educator for the Young

This childhood riddle tells a story of changing technology in the nineteenth century, when the invention of the “steel pen” made quill pens obsolete. However, the introduction of new technology did not mean that people’s habits changed overnight. How and when did this advance in technology and practice occur? And how does this information help us interpret the past at Bartow-Pell?

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William Michael Harnett (1848–1892). The Banker’s Table, 1877. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Elihu Root Jr. Gift, 1956., 56.21. www.metmuseum.org

Quill pens had been used for hundreds of years before the steel nib revolutionized the pen industry in the nineteenth century. Made from goose, turkey, swan, crow or other large feathers, quill pens had hollow barrels that were ideal ink reservoirs and sturdy tips that could be cut into fine writing points. The process of making a quill pen started with heating the barrel in hot sand or ashes in order to remove the membranes, desiccate the oily parts, and harden the shaft and make it transparent. Plunging the barrels into boiling water—and perhaps adding either alum or nitric acid—was sometimes recommended to increase firmness. Then, according to the Cyclopaedia of Useful Arts (1854), “a portion of the barb is stripped off so as to occupy less room in packing, and the quills are tied up in bundles of 25 or 50 each” for sale at stationery shops.

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Illustrations from Godey’s Lady’s Book, February 1836, show proper writing posture and the correct way to hold a quill pen.

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Horace Bundy (1814–1883). Vermont Lawyer, 1841. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch, 1953.5.4

Consumers were often expected to create the pointed end of their quills by using a pen knife to snip off the end of the barrel, make a slit, and form the writing tip. (The slit was essential because it acted as a capillary for ink flow.) Quill pens required frequent mending with a pen knife. Even young ladies “ought to be able to make or mend a pen herself,” pronounced the author of a Godey’s Lady’s Book article in 1836, at a time when steel pens were already in use but were found to be “hard and unpleasant” by the Godey’s writer. Nevertheless, according to “How Steel Pens Are Made,” an article published in The United States Magazine in 1857, not everyone was adept at cutting a quill: “While quill pens were in vogue, the occupation of a pen-cutter, or maker, was one of considerable importance; not one in five of those who used pens, could make one.” Indeed, the Cyclopaedia of Useful Arts asserted that a professional could cut 1,200 pens in a day.

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Gillott and Mitchell boxes. Each contained 144 nibs (one gross).

Although it is unclear when and where the original metal pen was invented, steel nibs were first mass produced in the 1820s by English manufacturers such as Joseph Gillott and John and William Mitchell, whose companies launched Birmingham as the epicenter of the global pen industry, a position it held for over a hundred years. During this time, dozens of makers supplied pens to the United States and to other countries around the world. The author of “How Steel Pens Are Made” claimed that more than 500 million steel pens were made in Birmingham in 1855, requiring 300 tons of metal. Nibs—or “steel pens,” as they were called—were inserted into pen holders, which were often made of wood Gillott ad 1840and fitted with hardware to hold the pen point. Sometimes nibs were made of gold, but obviously these were more expensive. When steel nibs broke or became dull, they were discarded, which is why stationers often sold boxes of one gross (twelve dozen). As manufacturing methods improved and production costs decreased, producers and consumers benefited. In The Story of Writing, the great modern calligrapher Donald Jackson wrote that “within thirty years from 1820 the application of machinery for stamping and slitting pens had reduced their price from 2d [two pence] each to 2d per gross.” It was steel-pen paradise. Furthermore, cheap printing costs created a heyday for advertisers, and pen makers eagerly took advantage of this to market their products.

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Young women made up the majority of workers in steel-pen factories.

As with most transitioning technologies, the shift to steel pens was not immediate. For a while, some consumers preferred feathers to steel. In fact, both types of pens were in use from the 1820s to the 1860s. Quill pens were flexible and allowed writers to produce a fine stroke, at least when the points were well cut and in good condition, so quills continued to appeal to some individuals. (In addition, there are always people who do not like change.) Some pen makers also offered nibs cut from quill barrels but inserted in a holder like metal pen points. Steel pens, however, were more durable and offered the convenience of being ready-made and did not require constant mending. Metal nibs also provided more uniform writing, whereas quills could result in poor penmanship if they were not properly cut or mended. In 1835, the Encyclopaedia Americana declared:

Of late, steel pens have been much used and improved, and for certain purposes, as for signing bank notes, to make the signatures uniform, they appear well adapted; as also for people who cannot make pens; but, on the whole, the quill affords a much easier and handsomer chirography.

And in “An Evening’s Conversation about Autographs,” a Godey’s article published in 1839, the author’s opinion on the matter is clear.

“I hope she does not write with that abomination of art, a steel pen,” said Ellen.

“No—I think hers is a real feather; it may be from the same gray goose which furnished the Commentator Gill with his much enduring pen.”

Kit's Writing Lesson 1852 by Robert Braithwaite Martineau 1826-1869

Robert Braithwaite Martineau (1826–1869). Kit’s Writing Lesson, 1852. Oil on canvas. Tate Britain. Photographic Rights © Tate 2016, CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 (Unported) http://www.tate.org.uk/

But times had changed drastically by 1863, which is evident in “The Making of a Pen,” an article from Chambers’s Journal of Popular Literature, Science, and Arts.

Among other elegant old-fashioned arts which graced the leisurely days of the Georges, but are rapidly dying out in this high-pressure time, must be reckoned the making and mending of quill pens. How many of my readers comprehend the mysteries of shaping, nibbing, and splitting? Here and there, perhaps, you may find an elderly gentleman, probably arrayed in a frill, and a blue coat with brass buttons, who prides himself in his dexterity in these almost obsolete operations; but the number is thinning every year.

The quill was (almost) dead. Long live the steel pen! That is, until the fountain pen came along, and the ballpoint, and so it continues. Today, however, the conversation is not about pens but about the future of handwriting itself. The New York Times recently published a book review on this topic that elicited a number of letters to the editor.

What does this mean for historic interpretation at Bartow-Pell? The Bartows bought their property in 1836 and moved into the mansion in 1842. At that time, people used both quills and steel pens, so we can display both types in our period rooms. Although the Bartows’ habits would have changed with the times, it’s anyone’s guess exactly when they decided to renounce old-fashioned feathers. Perhaps they were thoroughly modern steel-pen users by the time they moved to their country estate. We will probably never know.

As a reader of The Sporting Magazine wrote in 1835, “And now, Mr. Editor, for the present I throw aside my quill, remaining yours, &c.”

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Parlor Must-Have: The Center Table in Nineteenth-Century Interiors

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Bartow-Pell’s formal double parlors feature two center tables.

What’s the big deal about center tables, and why does Bartow-Pell have so many of them?

The center table was an essential piece of furniture in American parlors in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was not only useful; it was also imbued with complex social and cultural meanings. As a practical matter, center tables—which were frequently the focal point of parlors—were suitable locations for oil lamps and other lighting devices, which were often placed in the middle of the table in order to distribute precious light evenly, especially during the evening. The table’s round form also allowed people to sit close together and created convenient gathering spots for sewing, reading aloud, conversation, and other group activities. “‘We have been talking about getting a centre-table,’” a young wife reminds her husband in Three Experiments of Living (1837). “‘I thought it would be very convenient; and then it gives a room such a sociable look; besides, as we had a centre-lamp!’” she pleads.

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Illustration from American Girl’s Book: Or, Occupation for Play Hours by Eliza Leslie, 1831

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A. J. Downing, The Architecture of Country Houses, 1850, fig. 223

Center tables took on a kind of moral connotation, however, beyond simply serving as a domestic asset.  In 1850, Andrew Jackson Downing wrote in The Architecture of Country Houses that they “have long been popular pieces of parlor furniture,” and the “centre-table is to us the emblem of the family circle.” In 1854, a writer in Family Miscellany and Monthly School-Reader advised that the center table helped promote learning as well as good morals:

Let the family be supplied with books and periodicals. When evening comes, wheel the table into the center of the room, bring on the lights and gather around them. While the mother is busily engaged in sewing, and the daughter with knitting, and the younger children in some quiet but innocent game of amusement, let the father or son read from an interesting volume, now and then pausing, that all may join in a brief conversation on the subject. . . .From the associations of such a home, and family-room, and center-table, with its stores of knowledge, there would go forth into the world . . . young men and young women with a social influence which would banish from society much of its selfishness.

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Bartow-Pell’s family sitting room. An oversized Bible sits on the center table, which is covered with a period-appropriate green cloth.

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Henry F. Darby (American, 1829–1897). The Reverend John Atwood and His Family, 1845. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Paintings, 1815–1865, 62.269 www.mfa.org

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Ladies sew and converse around a center table. Fashion plate from Godey’s Lady’s Book, January 1853

Center tables and their affiliation with the parlor, often a feminine domain in nineteenth-century households, prompted Godey’s Lady’s Book to publish a column called “Centre-Table Gossip.” The tables were also bourgeois status symbols. “The Center-Table,” a short story published in 1850 in Gazette of the Union, Golden Rule, and Odd Fellows Family Companion, begins:

“Husband,” said Mrs. N——, “I think we must have a center-table. I have some very tasteful volumes, and some beautiful shells, and a variety of things with which to furnish it; and indeed our parlor is quite singular without it, they are so common now.”

“Well, Mary,” replied her husband, “the house is your own domain, you know. Arrange it to your own taste.”

As these passages show, items found on center tables varied, and they revealed what was important in different households. Books and periodicals could indicate an emphasis on education and learning, or they might have been on view merely to demonstrate good taste. An oversized Bible was often included. “Her centre-table contained a large Bible . . . one or two annuals in gay attire, the daguerreotype of her absent son, and a cologne bottle,” wrote Mrs. J. H. Hanaford, mixing the sacred with the secular in “The Centre-Table versus the Dining-Table,” from The Water-Cure Journal (1853). “Rich confusion” is described in this poem from The Monthly Miscellany of Religion and Letters (1840):

A small round table in the centre placed,

With Bible, hymn book, and the annuals graced;

The daily paper and the last review,

Tracts, pamphlets, billets, old as well as new,

With inkstand, wafers, sand-box, paper, knife,

In rich confusion there.

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Sinumbra lamp, French, ca. 1820. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Stuart and Sue Feld 2014.04a,b

Publishers, manufacturers, and advertisers took advantage of society’s devotion to the center table. For example, in 1852, a book notice in The National Magazine Devoted to Literature, Art, and Religion declared that “exquisitely engraved” Bible illustrations in recently published volumes would “form an elegant addition to the library, or centre-table.” Sewing baskets, books, writing supplies, and the like—which were happily scattered on center tables in back-parlors and sitting rooms—would not usually clutter a formal parlor. Instead, tables in the best rooms of the house might feature a floral arrangement, sinumbra lamp (a “shadowless” lamp with a circular oil font and a glass shade), or decorative object as an elegant centerpiece.

Even though center tables often had marble tops, table cloths were fashionable accessories. According to A. J. Downing: “Centre-tables depend for their good effect mainly on the drapery or cover of handsome cloth or stuff usually spread upon their tops, and concealing all but the lower part of the legs.” And an article in the Merchants’ Magazine and Commercial Review (1859) informs us that “Almost every parlor center-table is covered in winter by a woolen table-cover.” Although a variety of color and fabric options were available, green baize or broadcloth was a common choice.

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Table design. Thomas Hope. Plate 39 from Household Furniture and Interior Decoration, London, 1807

American center tables as a furniture form were inspired by French and English sources. The British Regency designer Thomas Hope (1769–1831), for example, published a “round monopodium or table in mahogany” in his book Household Furniture and Interior Decoration (1807), which scholars have linked to American table design. And French-style gueridons, or round tables, with marble tops, were made in early nineteenth-century New York by the influential Parisian émigré cabinetmaker Charles-Honoré Lannuier (1779–1819).

In Bartow-Pell’s formal double parlors, two center tables date from the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Casters allow them to be moved easily, as originally intended, reminding us that the set-up for today’s First Friday concerts is not entirely unlike what the Bartows would have done for their evening parties. Upstairs in the mansion’s family sitting room, a typically large Bible and items for family activities surround an oil lamp on the center table. Yet another table, with a lap desk, inkwell, and books, is located in the seating area of the master bedchamber.

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American center table in the Grecian Plain style, ca. 1835–40. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum. Gift of Mrs. Robert Brace, 1986

Although Bartow-Pell currently has several center tables on view, it is unknown how many the Bartow family actually owned. Curators in historic house museums such as Bartow-Pell that do not retain their original furniture use their best knowledge to interpret period rooms, and they rely on donations, monetary gifts, grants, and loans of objects from collectors and other museums to gather appropriate pieces. Over time, new resources and ongoing scholarship allow collections to be refined.

In modern households, the center table is a thing of the past. Lamps have electrical cords that need to be plugged into outlets, so tables with lamps must be next to a wall. Families often gather in front of a television set instead of reading aloud in a circle. And people don’t need a special place to keep a lap desk since lap-top computers can be used almost anywhere.

Although times have changed and center tables are no longer a household essential, they are still a must-have at Bartow-Pell.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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