This is the first in a series of posts about headline-grabbing stories in mid-nineteenth-century New York.
“Time’s up.” “That’ll do.”“Shut up.” “Go to bed.” “Take a drink.” Hissing. Groans. Stamping of feet. Contemptuous laughter. General uproar and confusion. And countless loud interruptions by derisive, raucous men. “Friends, will you keep order!” This is what greeted women (and their male supporters) at the Woman’s Rights Convention in New York City on September 6 and 7, 1853. Because of these unruly and hostile troublemakers, the gathering later became known as the Mob Convention.
The convention took place at the Broadway Tabernacle, a well-known church between today’s Worth Street and Catherine Lane. During the same week, some activists also participated in anti-slavery and temperance meetings at the Metropolitan Hall, a grand, new theater about a mile north on Broadway (which, by the way, burned to the ground a few months later). But reformers were not the only attractions in town. The Exhibition of the Industry of All Nations (America’s version of the 1851 Great Exhibition in London) was drawing crowds uptown at the New York Crystal Palace in what was then known as Reservoir Square (now Bryant Park).
History of Woman Suffrage (edited by Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Matilda Joslyn Gage) points out that the crowd of antagonistic men at the 1853 convention openly showed—as never before—the sort of “public sentiment woman was then combating.” The mob, the author adds bleakly, clearly confirmed “that general masculine opinion of woman” which, turned into law, “forges the chains which enslave her.” Things were heating up, and converting the opposition was not going to be easy.
The meeting was chaired by Lucretia Mott (1793–1880), the abolitionist and social reformer who had teamed up with Elizabeth Cady Stanton to organize the groundbreaking Seneca Falls Convention five years earlier in 1848. Other influential reformers—both women and men—took the stage in 1853. Lucy Stone (1818–1893) was a gifted orator and an early female graduate of Oberlin College who kept her maiden name after marriage. The Reverend Antoinette Brown (1825–1921) was the first ordained female minister in the United States and had just been prevented from speaking at the Temperance Convention because she was a woman. Sojourner Truth (1797–1883) gave her moving speech “What Time of Night It Is” amid hisses, rude laughter, and applause. Dr. Harriot K. Hunt (1805–1875) was a physician who specialized in women’s health. Susan B. Anthony (1820–1906) was there, too. The abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison (1805–1879), Wendell Phillips (1811–1884), and Charles C. Burleigh (1810–1878) were among the sympathetic men who participated. A few opponents were also given the chance to speak.
Press coverage was extensive and lasted several days. The New York papers were represented in force at the reporters’ table—including the Tribune, the Herald, and the newly launched Times. Each had its own distinct point of view, ranging from progressive to very conservative (just like the media in today’s democracies). “The Tribune was independent, and fearless in the expression of opinions on unpopular reforms,” a writer in History of Woman Suffrage later recalled. “Its editor, Horace Greeley, ever ready for the consideration of new ideas, was on many points the leader of liberal thought.” The Herald, the author continues, “was recognized by reformers as at the head of the opposition, and its diatribes were considered ‘Satanic.’” Finally, because the Times was “established at a much later date, its influence was not so great or extended as either The Tribune or The Herald.” In the writer’s view, “It represented that large conservative class that fears all change . . . knowing that in all upheavals the wealthy class is the first and greatest loser. From this source the mob spirit draws its inspiration.”
The press gave wildly different attendance figures for the opening session. According to the Times, only about three to four hundred individuals, mostly women, were present. The Tribune, on the other hand, reported that there four to five times that many people in “an audience of about 1,500 persons, composed about equally of men and women.” In any case, increasing numbers of rowdy adversaries crowded the cavernous church on Broadway and often drowned out the speakers on the platform. An inflammatory writer for the Herald even provoked a nineteenth-century flash mob by promising hecklers good entertainment if they would “put a shilling in their pockets [the price of admission] and journey toward the Tabernacle.” By the evening of September 7, the large space overflowed with three thousand people.
It is fascinating to compare contemporary newspaper accounts written from the scene. “The Bloomer Comedy: Second Day’s Proceedings of the Woman’s Rights Convention” was the Herald’s disparaging front-page headline on September 8, 1853. (Some of the women wore shortened skirts with trousers—i.e., bloomers—which became associated with the women’s rights movement in the early 1850s after such outfits were worn by Amelia Bloomer, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Lucy Stone, and others.) The Herald makes many more sneering comments, such as referring to the meeting as the “Woman’s Wrong Convention.” Unapologetic and blatant sexism abounds in their coverage. “It is almost needless for us to say that these women are entirely devoid of personal attractions. They are generally thin maiden ladies, or women who perhaps have been disappointed in their endeavors to appropriate the breeches and the rights of their unlucky lords.” The article refers to these “unsexed women” and their “champions” as the “Greeley Clique.” Horace Greeley (1811–1872), the founder and editor of the New-York Tribune, was at the convention and joined with a policeman to help quiet a disturbance in the gallery, according to one of his paper’s rivals, the Times (September 7, 1853).
On September 8, Greeley’s paper described the convention’s final proceedings in “Tremendous Uproar: Close of the New York Session,” saying that when the Tabernacle doors were thrown open at about seven o’clock, the “rush for tickets and admissions by the anxious throng could only be equaled to that on a Jenny Lind night.” After a tumultuous evening, the convention ended with “shouting, screaming, laughing, stamping,” and so much noise that nothing could be “heard or done in order.” Although “the Convention broke up amid the wildest uproar,” a resolution was passed giving thanks to Lucretia Mott “for the grace, firmness, ability and courtesy with which she has discharged her important and often arduous duties.” Even the unfriendly Herald grudgingly complimented the women’s “coolness and self-possession,” despite not having “right on their side.”
The belligerent mob could not deter advocates for women’s rights. On the last evening of the convention, Lucy Stone stood up on the platform to thunderous applause from supporters and deafening interruptions from insolent men in the gallery. Although the clamor was so great that her words were barely caught by reporters, she hoped that people “would remember what had been said, and one day there might be a convention when the men of New York would work with women for their rights.” “And then,” she went on, “men won’t believe the scenes that have been enacted here, [and] that men should be found to come here in solid phalanx to gag down women.” After declaring that the women in the room “were not to be frightened by trifles,” Stone announced that another convention would be held a month later in Cleveland, Ohio.
Everyone wants to wake up refreshed in the morning after a good night’s sleep in a comfortable bed. But in the days before memory foam, fitted sheets, and down-alternative comforters—when straw, horsehair, feathers, wool, and sometimes even corn husks, moss, and leaves filled the lofty layers piled on bedsteads—making a bed was not always easy.
So, how, exactly, did people make their beds in the nineteenth century?
To begin with, rope (“bed cords”), canvas (“sacking”), or wooden slats (“laths”) were attached to the bedstead’s side rails to support the mattress, which was stuffed into linen or cotton ticking. More bedding elements were then added to form “the elaborate pile of comfort designed to cushion our motionless forms.” (“Wholesome Beds,” The Health Reformer, June 1873) (Readers of fairy tales might recall the bedstead heaped high with twenty mattresses and twenty feather beds in Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Princess and the Pea” .)
Sometimes the bottom of the bed frame was fitted with a straw-filled pallet called a “paillasse” (paille is French for “straw”). According to the author of The Workwoman’s Guide (1838), “it is very thick and as hard as a board; . . . they are made in a frame and should be covered with a very strong good tick or Holland [a plain-woven linen].” Thomas Webster and Mrs. Parkes note in their Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy (1845) that “when the bottom of the bedstead is made with laths [slats], a paillasse is necessary, as the laths cut the mattress or bed.” But when sacking supported the mattress, the use of a paillasse was not advised. Straw deteriorated over time and had to be replaced every spring.
The mattress came next. Horsehair and wool were the most popular choices. Horsehair was the most desirable, being long-lasting and cooler, but it was more expensive. Mattresses were also filled with straw, rags (“flock”), Spanish moss, cotton, hemp, corn husks, and shredded wood (known as Excelsior). Woven wire supports and coiled metal springs were sometimes employed later in the nineteenth century. Not everyone could afford to buy a good mattress, however, even one made from inexpensive materials like corn husks. The author of You Ask!—I’ll Tell!, published in Philadelphia in 1873, reminds readers that for people living in poverty, “dried leaves from the maple or beech make a clean, healthy bed.” Webster and Parkes are of the opinion that dried beech leaves are even better than straw for stuffing a mattress. Their Encyclopedia claims that in addition to being soft and flexible, beech leaves retain a pleasant fragrance similar to that of green tea. “The only objection to them is the slight crackling noise which they occasion when a person turns in bed.”
A well-stuffed and plumped feather bed (sometimes simply referred to as a “bed”) was then laid on the mattress. (People slept on top of these—not underneath—and they are not to be confused with today’s down duvets.) Together, a feather bed, bolster, and pillows might be stuffed with up to ninety pounds of feathers. Caroline Howard King (1822–1909), who dreaded climbing up and down bed steps as a girl in Massachusetts, wrote in her memoirs about the experience of sleeping on this precarious mound of bedding: “The fear was emphasized by the fact that the bed was piled up very high in the middle, so that unless I landed exactly in the centre of the mountainous island on my first entrance, I passed my night in rolling down hill, or in vain efforts to scramble up to the top, to avoid falling out on the floor.’” Feather beds were taken off or stored under the mattress in the summer—when some areas sweltered under oppressive heat and humidity—because “nothing is more debilitating than, in warm weather, to sleep with a featherbed pressing round the greater part of the body.” (Catharine E. Beecher, Treatise on Domestic Economy, 1843)
Feather beds, however, developed a widespread reputation for their alleged “enervating” or enfeebling effect. (This was also a time when some individuals thought that bathing in warm water was debilitating.) They began to be seen as unhealthy, and their popularity declined. By 1855, when Godey’s Lady’s Book discussed bedding in the August issue, this attitude appears to have been well established. “The days of feather beds may be considered as entirely past, at least among people who have sufficient good sense and education to understand their enervating unhealthiness.” But Eliza Leslie, author of The House Book (1844), did not completely agree. As long as the feather bed was placed on a thick mattress “to prevent the feather-bed beneath from rising or swelling around you, the proper end is answered as far as health is in question,” she explains. “We believe that there are few grown persons who, during the severity of an American winter, would really find their health impaired by sleeping with the feather-bed on the top of the mattrass [sic]; and few that, in the summer, would find themselves too warm by having a feather-bed, instead of a paillasse, underneath a mattrass [sic] of moderate thickness.” Miss Leslie makes a good point, and feather beds continued to be used for a while, but her opinions were soon considered outdated.
Bolsters and pillows were also well stuffed with feathers. Miss Leslie warns that they “are not comfortable unless they are large and full,” adding that “it is a pitiful economy to put in so small a quantity [of feathers] that they become nearly flat as soon as you lie down on them.” Horsehair filled pillows as well. According to Godey’s in 1855, “[horse]hair pillows are more generally in use than ever before.” Pillows stuffed with small strips of paper, which were considered to be cooling, were sometimes recommended for invalids and people with fevers, children in the summer to keep their heads cool, and people on a low income. Pillows and bolsters were made in various dimensions, but pillows were usually square for much of the century. “‛I am accustomed to hair mattresses, square pillows, and linen bedding,’” sniffs a well-to-do lady in “Fanny’s Flirtation,” a serialized novella published in Peterson’s Magazine in 1864. Two pillows and a bolster were the norm—which meant that people slept propped up in a somewhat elevated position—but Godey’s (1855) advises that “to use the bolster alone at night, or one pillow, will preserve the figure best against curvature; an almost upright posture, which the use of square pillows makes necessary, cannot be as healthful.” By the end of the century, oblong pillows had become more common than square ones, according to “The Linen Closet,” an article printed in Demorest’s Family Magazine in October 1892.
Linen sheets and pillowcases were preferred by those who could afford them and, as Eliza Leslie puts it, were “universal in genteel families.” Cotton sheets did not last nearly as long as linen ones, but they were warmer and were sometimes recommended for use during cold winters. So-called Russian sheeting was long-wearing (but coarse) and was sometimes chosen for servants’ beds or by those on a limited budget.
Linens were marked with cross stitch and other embroidery (mostly earlier in the century) or with ink to identify the various sets of sheets and pillowcases that mingled together amidst a jumbled sea of white linen on laundry day. “All the bed-linen should be marked with the whole name of the family, and each pair of sheets and pillow-cases should have the same number or figure,” Miss Leslie instructs. Lavender sachets imparted a lovely scent to snowy white linens after laundering. Finally, a wide variety of blankets, coverlets, counterpanes, comforters, and quilts completed the bedding ensemble.
Bed curtains were used with high-post bedsteads and French bedsteads (a style that was placed sideways against the wall). Curtains prevented drafts, keeping sleepers warm in cold weather, and provided privacy. They were also elegant. “For a large and handsomely furnished chamber,” Eliza Leslie writes, “no bedstead looks so well as the square, high post, with curtains.” Bed curtains were usually made of the same (or similar) fabric as the coverlet, window curtains, and valance. “The bedstead in our own spare room was a very beautiful mahogany one, with richly carved posts and legs, and hung with a canopy and curtains of lovely soft India cotton, with counterpane and valances to match,” Caroline Howard King recalled. Watch pockets kept timepieces handy and were made of the same material as the bed curtains or of dimity, muslin, velvet, or buckskin. Mahogany bed steps—with a compartment for a chamber pot—were sometimes needed to climb up into these high beds. The treads were covered in Brussels carpet to prevent slipping. (Today, antique bed steps are often used as end tables, and the carpet has been replaced with leather.)
“Mattress, blankets, as well as sheets, soon become foul, and need purification,” owing to the large amount of “poisonous matter” that escapes through the body during the night, cautions the author of “Importance of Wholesome Beds” (New England Farmer, August 1861). In order to keep bedding and bedchambers fresh, “all beds, pillows, etc., should be exposed to a current of fresh air a few minutes every morning. Pillows and bolsters ought to be placed in the sun now and then to remove all tendency to unpleasant effluvia,” Godey’s advises. Turning the mattress and dusting the bedstead helped to deter infestations of bedbugs and other insects.
Metal bedsteads made of brass and iron became increasingly prevalent in the second half of the nineteenth century. These were considered more sanitary than wooden ones, because they are easily cleaned and do not attract insects. Modern spring mattresses also made their way into many households and were topped by hair or wool mattresses (straw mattresses also continued to be used). Housekeepers must have been delighted when they no longer had to plump and air out bothersome, old-fashioned feather beds or replace the straw in paillasses.
Making the bed is still a daily chore that no one looks forward to, but it is certainly much less trouble than it used to be. And let’s not even get started on washing the sheets. We will save that investigation for a future post.
Whether it’s a glittering snow globe, a festive popsicle-stick frame, a dazzling sequined bauble for the tree, or a chunky hand-knitted sweater, handmade gifts and ornaments add a warm glow to the holidays.
But handcrafted treasures were trendy long before the rise of DIY YouTube videos and Etsy. In the nineteenth century, traditional arts and crafts were sometimes a reaction against modern industrialization and mass production. Handicrafts were also part of the Victorian culture of domesticity, which revered the purity of the family circle, the domestic arts, and self-improvement. The image of the happy wife and mother was embodied by Queen Victoria and the blissful home that she shared with Prince Albert and their many children. The popular press in both Britain and the United States idolized (and idealized) the couple’s cozy family circle, quickly turning these regal celebrities into cultural influencers. Perhaps the most enduring Anglo-American custom popularized by Victoria and Albert is the Christmas tree, a German tradition from the prince consort’s childhood that was enthusiastically adopted by the public after engraved illustrations of the royals’ decorated evergreen appeared in 1848 in the Illustrated London News, followed in 1850 by an Americanized version featured in Godey’s Lady’s Book.
The celebration of Christmas—which had previously been very subdued—gained momentum during the second half of the nineteenth century, when festivities became increasingly merry and creative. At the same time, advances in the printing industry and in female education led to an abundance of women’s magazines. Godey’s, Peterson’s, Demorest’s, and similar publications responded to a strong demand for gender-specific content and had large circulations. Stories, sheet music, poetry, fashion, essays, and—of course—patterns and instructions for handicrafts filled their illustrated pages.
Let’s take a look at some crafts from holidays past.
In “Aunt Sophie’s Visits,” a short story published in Godey’s in December 1857, a favorite aunt gives advice on decorating the family Christmas tree. “Be lavish in your ornaments upon the tree,” she tells her niece, “but make them yourselves, and you will prize them.” Egg shells, for example, can be painted, or stained with beet juice, indigo, or saffron, then varnished and hung from the tree by a piece of thread, or they can be turned into imitation lemons by dipping them in melted beeswax and attaching laurel leaves to the top. “Nuts, with gilt paper pasted over them, are showy, as also little lace bags of sugar plums.” Strings of “parched” corn create a lively contrast against the evergreen. “And “a variety of funny things may also be made of wire and different colors of sealing wax.”
Aunt Sophie even has ideas about lighting the tree. Because (cheap) tallow candles were smoky, smelly, drippy, and fast-burning, expensive wax candles were required. However, there was a more economical (and safer) way to provide illumination. “All you need do will be to place a small table behind the tree and set upon it a half dozen or less common lamps,” she suggests. “These, with one light on each side of the room, will be brilliant enough for a good effect, and there will be no noticeable expense, and no accident from getting the other contents of the tree on fire.” (Tree fires from lighted candles were obviously a real danger.) As for the family’s homemade gifts, the author makes sure to give credit to “the valuable hints and patterns in the Lady’s Book.”
We can learn more about ornaments in The Household, a domestic encyclopedia published in 1881. “Gilded stars, scarlet and blue stars, can be cut from paper and interspersed with small flags, shields and other devices. Crotchet [sic] purses, bon-bons, preserved fruit, and alum baskets help to make a beautiful and dazzling effect when the tree is lit up.” (To make a crystalline basket, alum mixed with water is poured over a wire basket covered with thread, and crystals form as the solution dries.) Radiantly hued apples and oranges suspended from the branches add color against the greenery. And nothing, the writer tell us, “brightens a Christmas tree” like easy-to-make gilt-paper chains. There are also instructions for making birds’-nest ornaments with eggshells, moss, feathers, and candy eggs, as well as for pine-cone baubles set on “rustic twigs.” To make cornucopias, the covers of old notebooks may be folded and pasted into a horn shape, then covered with a remnant of silk or chintz, and finished with some trimming along the top and a crocheted cord for hanging.
Nature’s bounty—collected on a walk in the woods, garden, or fields—makes the Christmas tree even more beautiful. The Household advises that “crystallized moss hanging from the branches, acorns, sweet gum balls and cotton balls are all very effective among the green.” And “hoop-skirt springs make the best foundations for [evergreen] wreaths and crowns,” we are told. (Although cage crinolines had been out of fashion for a while, the metal rings referred to here could have been repurposed from old hoops. On the other hand, the bustle—which was in vogue in the 1870s and ‘80s—was also made with cloth-covered steel wires, which were sometimes used for crafts.)
Gifts were often hung like ornaments on the Christmas tree. But The Household suggests “putting all the bulky and heavy presents in baskets at the base of the tree, instead of loading down the tree with their weight and making the branches unsightly.” In any case, who could resist the evergreen “in the parlor, loaded with brilliant candles, bonbons, and toys,” as Demorest’s Family Magazine put it in December 1890.
Crafty revelers had many options when it came to homemade gifts. For example, Demorest’s tells Yuletide readers in 1890 how to make presents “for every member of the family, from grandpa to baby.” A “beautiful watch-case made of moss-green silk, lined with rose-colored satin,” trimmed with silver cord, and embroidered might be just the thing in the days when every gentleman had a fine pocket watch. Or maybe a hair receiver made of stiff paper painted in a Japanese design and adorned with red silk pompoms would make the perfect gift for a friend? (Women saved hair that fell out during brushing to use as padding for voluminous hairstyles or to provide a filler for handmade items such as small pincushions.)
Even Victorian kids joined the do-it-yourself craze. In December 1875, St. Nicholas, the well-known magazine for children edited by Mary Mapes Dodge (the author of Hans Brinker, or The Silver Skates), published an article “for Girls, Little and Big (with a few Useful Hints for Boys),” which gives instructions for one hundred Christmas presents to make at home. “’What shall I make for Christmas? I want a present for mamma, and one for father, and something for Jack and for Ethel, something pretty, but not too hard for me to make,” a child might ask. The easiest projects—suitable for six- or seven-year-old crafters—include a scent case for handkerchiefs; bright scarlet or blue knitted garters; a pen-wiper for Papa’s library table made from red kid-leather baby shoes; and a shaving-paper case “for papas and grown-up brothers” (shaving papers were used to wipe lather from a razor). Girls from ten to fourteen “who are expert with their needles” could choose to make bags of white dimity for combs and brushes; crocheted hanging baskets lined with glass for mosses, ferns, and flowers; or a pansy pincushion. Embroidered or beaded spectacle cases “are nice presents to make for grandpapas and grandmammas.” Girls over the age of fourteen are given even more elaborate present ideas, such as ornamental picture frames and easels made from Norway spruce. Boys with “a fair amount of good taste and ingenuity can make very nice presents out of smoothed cocoa-nut shells,” such as flower pots, water pails, and pretty receptacles for calling cards.
Times have changed, and we no longer need pen wipers or pocketwatch cases, but a special handmade ornament or gift will never go out of style.
Decorative arts specialist and BPMM Curatorial Committee Chair Carswell Rush Berlin writes about a center table in Bartow-Pell’s collection and discusses its classical origins, stencil decoration of American furniture in the 1820s and ‘30s, and the table’s recent conservation treatment.
Two hundred years of dirty grunge has been carefully removed by conservator Cynthia Moyer from a carved, gilt-stenciled, and bronze-mounted mahogany Classical center table in the manner of Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854). This project was made possible by a conservation treatment grant from the Greater Hudson Heritage Network.
This center table was made in New York in about 1825 and, like its many counterparts of the period, reflects the fascination with and taste for Classical antiquity that swept the Western world after the excavations of Herculaneum and Pompeii in the second quarter of the eighteenth century. A center table was a new form of furniture at the beginning of the nineteenth century and—like scroll-arm sofas and couches, klismos chairs, curule-base furniture, sarcophagus-shaped cellarets, and tables with anthropomorphic and zoomorphic elements—was derived from ancient Greek and Roman furniture forms. As such, center tables not only reflected an international style but, in the United States as well as in France, also had philosophical and political meaning through an association with Greek democracies and the Roman Republic. This style of furniture was pointedly used in allegorical paintings by artists in Paris at the time of the French Revolution—such as Jacques-Louis David—as symbols of the Republican society that the anti-monarchists aspired to create.
Bartow-Pell’s table is a particularly fine example of the form, with its gilt-stencil decoration and a gilt-bronze collar at the base of the pedestal. Its quality and several construction details suggest the hand of Duncan Phyfe, New York’s most famous and influential cabinetmaker. The piece relates perfectly to its setting in the double parlors at Bartow-Pell, one of the best Greek Revival interiors in New York, and is surrounded by other fine examples of period New York furniture. It was a gift from Florence Van Rensselaer (1865–1957) in 1947 when she was President of the International Garden Club (now the Bartow-Pell Conservancy). Miss Van Rensselaer’s famous family can be traced back to the Dutch settlers of New York (she wrote books about their genealogy) and was connected to the important Livingston and Bayard families, which were all clients of Duncan Phyfe early in the nineteenth century.
It is not clear exactly when gilt-stencil decorations began to appear on American furniture. Stenciling was used in the Federal period (1785–1820) but came into its own as an art form in the mid-1820s, lasting as a popular feature for almost ten years. It may have been as a result of the multiple trade embargoes that were imposed by the United States on Britain and France from 1808 to the end of the War of 1812. This would have made gilt-bronze and English lacquered brass furniture appliqués more expensive and difficult to import, driving furniture decorators into a seven-year practice of improvisation, which resulted in the realization that Classical furniture could be dramatically decorated without expensive imported metal mounts. Or it may be that the style developed organically when American cabinetmakers saw new opportunities to cover flat expanses of mahogany with gold on Empire-style furniture. In any case, beginning about 1825, designers of high-style American Classical furniture in the Empire mode went crazy for gold stencil decoration on over-the-top concoctions, which often included gilded carving, bronze powder and vert antique paint decoration (which imitated weathered bronze), anthropomorphic and zoomorphic elements, marble columns, and gilt-bronze column capitals and bases. Although gilt stenciling was also used in England and France, those pieces were nothing like the ones being produced in New York and Philadelphia, so exuberant were they!
The stencils themselves were usually adapted by American cabinetmakers using books imported from England. Because any American cabinetmaker could buy the same set of stencil patterns, it is difficult, even impossible, to identify a cabinetmaker by the stencils he employed. Geometric bands were often used, as were sprays of fruit and foliage and other designs incorporating standard classical motifs such as anthemions, scallop shells, harps, urns, acanthus leaves, swans, classical visage, and the like, often in combination. This type of stencil decoration can be seen in both of the pier tables in the north parlor at Bartow-Pell as well as in the center table discussed here.
The surface for a stencil was prepared by first applying a coat of shellac over the mahogany or rosewood. Indeed, sometimes the mahogany veneer was painted with striations to make it look like rosewood, called faux-graining, and then the stencil was applied over that and finished with more layers of shellac to protect it. The stencil was often preceded by a layer of black ebonizing paint as a foil for the gold, so the gold could be scratched away with a stylus to reveal the black in order to create texture and definition, as in an etching. Sometimes black lines were painted over the gold for the same purpose and effect.
Stencil decoration was used on every form of furniture by at least a half dozen well-known New York firms, including Duncan Phyfe (active 1795–1847), Deming and Bulkley (active 1820–50), Holmes and Haines (active 1825–30), Meeks & Sons (active 1798–1867), Kinnan & Mead (active 1823–30), Williams & Dawson (active 1824–32), and probably by many more whose names are unknown today.
To simplify a long and painstaking process, the conservation on Bartow-Pell’s center table involved removing two hundred years of grime, composed largely of soot, dust, and tobacco smoke trapped in later, discolored layers of varnish. This is tricky because the stencil was essentially floating between layers of varnish or shellac, which made it quite challenging to clean away the dirt without also cleaning away the stencil. (Do not try this at home!) After these layers were removed, losses to the decorative gilt work were restored.
Bartow-Pell’s table also has a gilt-bronze collar at the base of the column that supports the top. This decorative element was removed and cleaned, revealing the dazzling matte and burnished fire-gilded surface. The collar now matches the color of the gilt stenciling, which was designed to look like brass string and filigreed brass inlay. Two areas of ebonizing, or blackening—the knife-edge molding just below the marble top and the capital at the top of the pedestal—were also cleaned and consolidated, and inpainting was carried out on sections where losses were present. This returned the contrasting areas of black, which, set against the figured mahogany veneer, add an extra layer of sophistication to the total composition.
Conservation and restoration of our most important objects constitute a vital part of Bartow-Pell’s plan for collection care and enhance the interpretation of our Greek Revival period rooms. Thanks to funding from the Greater Hudson Heritage Network, the original splendor of this handsome table—now on view in the north parlor—can be admired once again.
One summer day in 1867, Catharine Burns, “a poor servant girl,” boarded the Fulton Ferry in Brooklyn while lugging a valise full of her clothing, according to the New York Herald (September 11, 1867). She was on her way to start a new job, or so she thought. William Smith, who had claimed “he had a good place at service for her on Staten Island,” met her when she reached the Manhattan side of the East River and “took charge of her baggage.” But on their way to the Staten Island ferry, “he gave her the slip and ran away with her clothing,” which was valued at forty dollars, an amount equal to about four or five months’ worth of wages. This would have been a huge loss for the unfortunate Catharine, who was later able to identify the culprit in his jail cell. Did her suitcase contain well-worn dresses? Some new clothes for a new job? A bit of special finery?
Legions of nineteenth-century Irish immigrants spent most of their waking hours in practical work dresses and aprons as they scrubbed floors, tended fires, plucked chickens, ironed tablecloths, emptied chamber pots, and took care of children. But what else do we know about their clothing? Did these women also dress up in the latest styles? Did fashion play a role in what society called “the servant question”? What stories can their clothing tell?
Irish immigrants poured into the United States looking for a better life during the potato famine of the 1840s and in the decades that followed. Young women who worked as domestic servants were given the generic name of “Bridget” (or “Biddy,” the diminutive form), a term that was often laden with anti-Irish sentiment. These girls usually came from rural areas and were young, unmarried, Roman Catholic, and sometimes illiterate, which placed them near the bottom of American society. They worked as chambermaids, “waitresses” (waiting at table), cooks, nursemaids, and laundresses.
Employers regularly placed newspaper advertisements for “a neat and tidy girl,” which implies that—since this requirement had to be specified—not all domestic employees were fastidious about their appearance. “There is nothing so sets off an establishment as neat and appropriately dressed servants, and yet they are seldom found even in the most magnificent of our houses,” gripes the author of “Your Humble Servant,” an article about Irish domestics published in the June 1864 issue of Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. But savvy servants looking for work were aware that good grooming and appropriate attire would help them find the best positions. “Wanted—A SITUATION BY A RESPECTABLE young woman, who is neat and tidy in her person, to do chamberwork and waiting, or as chambermaid and to do fine washing and ironing,” a servant girl looking for a job announced in the New York Herald, on October 18, 1859.
Calico and gingham were practical options for good, simple work dresses. “Plain, dark calico dresses, two gingham lawns [a dress made of a fine linen or cotton fabric woven in checks, plaids, or stripes] . . . and dark gingham aprons” are mentioned as suitable attire for a servant in “Six Months in the Kitchen,” a story published in the July 1861 issue of The Ladies’ Repository: A Monthly Periodical Devoted to Literature and Religion. Some employers wanted their domestics to wear caps. “Your Humble Servant” describes a housekeeper who “keeps a supply of white caps and gingham dresses, and makes it a condition on hiring a waiting-maid or nurse[maid] that she should put her head into the one and her body into the other.” However, the writer bemoans, “all her attempts upon Bridget have failed. She prefers shaking to the wind her frowsy locks reeking with castor-oil and bergamot and bobbing about, her hoops hung with rags, to wearing ‘a cotton night-cap and a common gingham frock.’”
Servants’ clothing was still a thorn in the sides of employers almost thirty years later when The Biddy Club: And How Its Members . . . Grappled with the Troublous Servant Question was published in 1888. This book presents a series of fictional discussions among a group of employers—each one with a different point of view—about how to manage a variety of servant-related issues. Mrs. Hughes, a character who is described as a paradigm of good sense, “‛had been much annoyed by their poor dressing’” so she required her servants to wear “‛a calico gown made with full skirt and plain waist. Each girl had three of these suits, and wore one mornings with gingham aprons, and another afternoons with white aprons, white surplice or collar, and cap.’” “‛Could you get your girls to wear caps? I have had some trouble about that,’” another woman asks her. ‛Some girls did not object at all; others did,’” replied Mrs. Hughes. “‛But Mr. Hughes and I were both so annoyed by finding an occasional misplaced hair that I made a rule that the cook must wear a close cap whenever she was on duty.’”
Meanwhile, employers were not the only ones thinking about clothes, and a fashion revolution was brewing below stairs. Servants, of course, had had an interest in fashion long before Irish immigrants took over the domestic drudgery of American homes. In “Madeline Malcolm” (Atlantic Tales, 1833), Eliza Leslie describes two well-to-do friends in Philadelphia who disguise themselves as servants: “The two young ladies did not know, or did not recollect, that when real servant-girls go to the theatre, they generally dress as well as they can and take pains to appear to the best advantage. The clothes that Madeline had selected were quite too dirty and shabby for the occasion.”
Servants’ finery was a hot topic in the nineteenth century. In “Homes—American and English” (The Family Herald, 1860), a British journalist comments that American servants, “Being strongly infected with the national bad taste for being over-dressed, they are, when walking the streets, scarcely to be distinguished from their employers.” Similarly, in the words of “Your Humble Servant,” “Bridget” is “as fond of fine feathers as her mistress and often carries a twelve-month’s wages on her back. She will spend all her money for a silk dress, a lace collar, a velvet hat, and a flashy parasol. . . . Indoors and on duty, she is as slattern as a beggar; outside on a Sunday or a holiday, she is as fine a lady as her mistress and might readily be mistaken for her.” “American Dress” (Putnam’s Magazine, April 1870) even attributes an increase in clothing sales to the phenomenon. “As every woman is a lady—as Biddy, the Irish maid, dresses as nearly as she can like her mistress . . .—the trade in fashions is brisk beyond all conception.”
Employers were clearly concerned about their domestics’ love of fashion. In a lively debate, the ladies in The Biddy Club express strong opinions on the matter. “‛If a girl comes to you all dressed in cheap and gaudy finery, you don’t want her. Even if she’s dressed soberly, but with clothes beyond her means and station—imitation seal-skin cloak, kid gloves, or anything of that kind—you don’t, as a general thing, want her,’” one woman warns disapprovingly. But others are more tolerant. “‛Oh, I never trouble myself about their dress, so they do their work and look well,’” said the woman dubbed the “Imitation Millionaire.” “‛I don’t think that’s any of our business,’ remarks another participant. “‛I do,’” a fellow club member protests, “‛but I don’t know just what to do about it. I’m often bothered by having my cook put more white skirts into the wash than I do, and I’ve known her to spend a long time ironing fancy lace collars.’”
A love of clothes even resulted in crimes by and against domestic servants. In 1836, for example, Margaret Reynolds, “a good looking girl,” “was tried [in court] for stealing from a fellow servant a quantity of clothing” (New York Herald, March 3, 1836). And we have already read about Catharine Burns, the servant girl who lost her apparel to a con artist. The monetary value of Catharine’s loss, however, paled in comparison to that of three well-paid servants working at the Sinclair House, a hotel that once stood on Broadway and Eighth Street. On June 16, 1867, the Herald reported that Hannah Harrison had forgotten to blow out the candle on a wash stand before falling asleep. Fortunately, no one was injured in the resulting fire, and there was minimal damage to the building, but the three women’s belongings went up in flames. “The greatest loss occurred in burning servants’ clothing. Mary Melville, the head chambermaid alleges her loss to be $1000. Fanny McGovern, the cook, lost about $300. Hannah Harrison lost about $150.”
The British caricaturist John Leech (1817–1864) satirized the idea of servants putting on airs—which he called “servantgalism”—in his humorous illustrations for Punch in the 1850s. The derisive term made its way across the Atlantic, where tensions between servants and employers often ran high. On October 18, 1862, the New York Times reported in “Servantgalism—A Domestic Sues Her Mistress for Slander”that Eliza Malone was suing her employers, Elizabeth and Benjamin M. Stillwell of Thirty-Fourth Street, for two thousand dollars in damages after Mrs. Stillwell had accused Eliza of stealing a pair of diamond earrings and Mr. Stillwell fired her. The plaintiff claimed “to have suffered great damage to her character for honesty and her standing among the servant girls in the neighborhood.” Eliza was obviously innocent of thievery in the affair of the diamonds since the slander case was allowed to proceed in court. She had every right to be outraged.
Did some employers fear that their position in the social hierarchy was threatened by servants dressing in fine clothes? Discouraging employees’ taste for fashion could be seen as a way to suppress upward mobility and keep the lower classes (and immigrants) in their place. In addition, the issue was sometimes a moral one. “Household Reform: A British Plan to Reform the Sumptuary Excesses of the Kitchen”—which ran in the Chicago Tribune on February 5, 1868—reports on an opinion piece by “A Clergyman’s Wife” that had recently been published in the Pall Mall Gazette. The zealous British authoress wants to “stem the tide of sin” by creating a uniform—or livery—for female servants, whose current style of dressing, she says, is “disgraceful” and immoral. “In consequence of the reckless expenditure of women upon their dress,” she cautions ominously, “husbands become drunkards, and quarrels, and even murder, too commonly follow. It is lamented by numbers of masters and mistresses that the dress of female servants is in general quite unbecoming their status in life.” Even murder!
This extreme point of view provoked a backlash from the Tribune, whose American commentator observed that “no doubt, the servants nowadays spend their money upon a style of dress which makes them look none the better, and the practice is to be deplored for more important reasons than the pangs of a mistress on beholding her housemaids dressed like her daughters. But something equally deplorable is the sort of ignorance amongst the ‘upper classes’ which accounts for notions like the livery league of our [British] correspondent.” An essay in Modern Women and What Is Said of Them (1868) also disagrees with the clergyman’s wife. Extravagant dress, the author argues, is the fault of employers, not their servants. “A neat and simple style must come from above, and not from below. . . . When ‘ladies of position and fortune’ cease to lavish their thousands on millinery, their copyists in the nursery and kitchen will cease to spend their wages on a similar object. . . . The chief incentive to showy dress among the ‘lower orders of females’ is unquestionably a desire to ape the extravagance of their betters. Remove that incentive, and the evil which a ‘Clergyman’s Wife’ so forcibly deplores will soon cure itself.”
Servant dress was part of a larger dialogue. Employers constantly complained about the lack of competent domestic help. Servants complained about their mistresses and wanted better working conditions. Flora McDonald Thompson summed up what was known as “the servant question” in an article published in the March 1900 issue of The Cosmopolitan: “What shall we do with our ‘hired girls?’” and “What shall our ‘hired girls’ do with us?” The topic hummed through parlors, on the street, and in the kitchen and scullery.
Many Irish immigrants were young women exploring the modest freedom that came with earning their own money. And they often lived in cities where shopping for—and wearing—new clothing would have been fun. More importantly, however, fashion was a means of asserting their independence from menial jobs, impoverished backgrounds, and low social status. Hard work, ambition, and—yes—dressing up improved the domestic servant’s chances of moving up in the world.
A rare pair of portraits depicting Pell descendant Amelia Grace Pell Craft (1806–1888) and her husband, William Edward Craft (1800–1852), are recent additions to Bartow-Pell’s collection. These works, which date to about 1843, were painted by an unknown artist, probably in New York City.
The Pells once owned fifty thousand acres of land in what is today the Bronx and lower Westchester County. By the late eighteenth century, however, the family’s vast holdings had been broken up, and the descendants of the Lords of the Manor had largely dispersed. Two eighteenth-century headstones in the little woodland burial ground at Bartow-Pell memorialize Amelia’s great-grandparents, Joseph Pell, the Fourth Lord of the Manor of Pelham (ca. 1715–1752), and his widow, Phoebe (ca. 1720–1790). Both Amelia and her third cousin and contemporary Robert Bartow were direct descendants of Joseph’s father, Thomas Pell II, the Third Lord of the Manor.
Amelia Grace Pell was christened in New York City at St. Mark’s Church on January 21, 1806. She was the daughter of Mary (ca. 1775–1851) and John Pell (1769–1819), whose father was Joseph Pell, the Fifth Lord of the Manor. John was a butcher who owned a stall in the Fly Market, New York City’s principal public market at that time. A former apprentice described “his ‘Old Boss,’ John Pell, as having a strong, but a well educated mind, honest and just in all his dealings, and a gentleman of the ‘olden time’” (Manual of the Corporation of the City of New York, 1868). He was also an alderman for the tenth ward. The prosperous meat seller died in 1819, leaving his house at 69 Bowery to his “dear wife Mary Pell the mother of my children” and $1,000 to each of his nine offspring, including Amelia. His widow—Amelia’s mother—continued to live in the residence until her death over thirty years later in 1851.
On July 8, 1824, Amelia Grace Pell married William E. Craft in New York City. The Reverend Henry J. Feltus of St. Stephen’s (Episcopal) Church, a friend of her late father’s, officiated. The newlyweds would eventually become the parents of nine children—six boys and three girls—born between 1827 and 1849. Like Amelia, William had roots in Westchester County and came from a family of food merchants in lower Manhattan, where his father, Sutton Craft, is listed in various New York City directories and jury censuses as a grocer and butcher. William and his brother Isaac apparently joined their father in the grocery business as young men, and in the 1830s, William E. Craft became a director of the Butchers’ and Drovers’ Bank, suggesting that he was both successful and ambitious.
Sometime around 1843, Amelia and William—along with Isaac Craft—moved from New York City to Lawrenceburg, Indiana, a lively trade hub on the Ohio River. Kentucky was just across the border, and Cincinnati was only about thirty miles to the east. It is unknown why the family—which now included six children (three more were subsequently born in Indiana)—packed up and headed west. But records show that, since at least the late 1830s, the brothers had bought hundreds of acres of property in Indiana and Michigan. Perhaps, like many people, they were drawn by the prospect of buying cheap land and taking advantage of tempting economic opportunities. And indeed, William did very well as a merchant in Indiana, where he owned the largest distillery in Lawrenceburg as well as a flour mill and a saw mill. He was also a dealer in groceries, hardware, and dry goods, both wholesale and retail. But in February 1844, Craft’s malt house—the building where malt was prepared for use in the distillery—burned to the ground in the middle of the night. “Our citizens were aroused at half past 1 o’clock on Friday morning last by the alarm of fire. The Malt House, connected to the large distillery, and owned by W. E. Craft, Esq. was wholly destroyed. It was not insured. Loss $2000. Fortunately, the main building was preserved.” (Political Beacon [Lawrenceburgh], February 22, 1844) And to add insult to injury, some of the Crafts’ supposedly respectable neighbors engaged in a crooked scheme to steal large numbers of hogs from these New York City transplants. “Craft of the largest distillery at Lawrenceburgh keeps constantly in his pens some 5000 hogs. Out of this number it is difficult to miss half a dozen. It seems the butchers at Lawrenceburgh have been in the practice of supplying the Lawrenceburgh market by stealing from this monster pig pen. About the 1st inst., Mr. Craft, having some suspicions that his hogs were disappearing rather strangely, set a watch to see where they went. About 11 o’clock at night of the 3rd inst. (it being the first night of the watch), four of the Lawrenceburgh butchers were seen to go to the pen, drive out 8 or 10 hogs, drive them to the slaughter house, slaughter and supply the market the next morning. They were arrested and recognized to Court. They were old citizens of Lawrenceburgh township, and most of them have families.” (“Profitable Business,” Indiana American, October 17, 1845)
Sadly, in July 1852, William died near Troy, Indiana, over one hundred and fifty miles from his home, which probably means that his death was unexpected. Amelia was left on her own with a house full of teenagers and several children still under the age of ten. Sometime in the mid-1860s, she moved with some of her children to Indianapolis, where she died on June 30, 1888, at the age of eighty-one, thirty-six years after the death of her husband.
Mr. and Mrs. Craft sat for their portraits in what were probably their best clothes. These styles are typical of the 1840s. Amelia’s elegant crimson velvet dress—which dates to around 1843—has an elongated, tight, V-shaped, fan-front bodice extending over the top of the arm to create a stylish sloped-shoulder look. Gathers at the shoulder seam and fine cartridge pleats at the low, pointed waist control the fullness of the fabric. Piping—which strengthened seams on snug bodices—is visible along her waistline. The long and very narrow sleeves of the period were cut on the bias to add some stretch and were sometimes topped by sleeve caps, like the ones seen here. At her wrists, our sitter wears removable lace frills—known as manchettes—that coordinate with a frill along the neckline. Finally, Amelia would have had many layers of petticoats under her very full skirt to add bulk and shape for a fashionable silhouette. Her hair would have been gathered in a knot low on the neck. It is parted in the center, smooth and flat, but this style would soon become outdated when puffs of hair over the ears later came into fashion around 1845.
In addition to her gold wedding band, Amelia wears a hairwork bracelet. The hair was likely provided by one or more loved ones, or it was quite possibly a love token from her husband. Skilled hair workers at jewelers and small manufactories turned strands of hair into handmade jewelry, but some women made ornamental hairwork at home as a piece of fancywork. There was a ready market for these goods, which were both sentimental and fashionable.
Mr. Craft appears to be wearing a cutaway dress coat (a tailcoat or swallowtail coat), which was proper attire for formal occasions (versus a frock coat, which had a full knee-length skirt that fell from a seam at the waist). “Wear frock-coats in the streets, dress-coats in the dining or drawing-room,” advises Etiquette for Gentlemen (New York, 1848). Although neckties were predominant, stocks—neckcloths like the one here—were still worn. A black satin vest completes the ensemble. Like many men in the 1840s, the sitter is clean shaven and wears his hair in a popular lank (straight and limp) style parted on the side. The letter in his hand is addressed to “[W.] E. Craft Esq.,” New York, which not only identifies the sitter and his place of residence but also tells the viewer that William Craft is a gentleman and someone of high social status.
The likenesses of Amelia Grace Pell Craft and William E. Craft were probably painted shortly after Robert Bartow finished building his country estate on land owned by his Pell ancestors. Now, these Pell portraits are on view in the downstairs sitting room at Bartow-Pell.
A. J. Downing (1815–1852) was full of modern ideas about landscape gardening. And he particularly wanted to create a tradition in the United States that was inspired by—but separate from—British and European precedents. He also recognized the need to adapt these practices for the American climate, soil, landscape, and culture. Today, he would be an enthusiastic Instagram influencer with thousands of followers, but in the middle of the nineteenth century, it was his book A Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening—first published in 1841 when he was just twenty-five years old—that attracted attention.
Although Downing wrote much of the Treatise for the gentleman of leisure with a country house, he wanted all Americans—not just wealthy landowners—to enjoy the pleasures of the garden, landscape, and nature, and he worked hard to popularize his ideas. Furthermore, as societal and economic changes swept through the nineteenth century, families looked to the stability of the home in order to preserve the domestic circle, and this was accompanied by a love of country pursuits and nature. “A taste for rural improvements of every description is advancing silently, but with great rapidity in this country,” Downing penned in the Treatise’s opening lines. He felt that it was important to “render domestic life more delightful” by enhancing the natural beauty around one’s residence. He even said that this made Americans more patriotic and better citizens by increasing “local attachments.” “The love of country is inseparably connected with the love of home,” he declared.
The ultimate status symbol for people of means in the mid-nineteenth century was a country seat. Better than a collection of pictures, “the sylvan and floral collections, . . . which surround the country residence of a man of taste,” are confined only by “the blue heaven above and around them,” the Treatise tells us. (Downing had a way with words.) He defined landscape gardening as a fine art, like poetry, music, and—especially—landscape painting.
But the Treatise goes beyond idealistic philosophy and theoretical precepts. It was also a practical how-to guide. The book includes sections on trees and plants, preparing the ground, laying out roads and walks, building artificial lakes and waterfalls, designing flower gardens, and much, much more.
Creating a manmade landscape that appeared natural required a great deal of skill. Downing’s approach included strategic groupings of trees and shrubs; curvilinear paths and roads; undulating surfaces (including lawns of velvety green grass); carefully planned views and vistas, and a sympathetic connection between the house and grounds. And he felt strongly that in order to succeed “in the modern style,” it was important that the parts of a landscape be interconnected. In his view, “the chief beauty of the modern style is the infinite variety produced by following a few leading principles and applying them to different and varied localities; unlike the geometric [old-fashioned] style, which proceeded to level, and arrange, and erect its avenues and squares alike in every situation, with all the precision and certainty of mathematical demonstration.”
He believed that trees arranged in a diverse composition of “groups, single trees, and large masses”—and “even the grove or wood”—would “produce that diversity, and that breadth of light and shadow, so agreeable in real landscape and so enchanting in fine pictures.” “All variety, grandeur, and beauty would be lost,” he warned, if scattered single trees or “uniform groups alone” were used.
Roads and walks, in Downing’s opinion, should be laid out “in easy flowing lines, following natural indications.” The “approach”—the drive leading from the public road to the house—was the most important of these. In the past, this was usually a straight road leading directly to the front of the dwelling. But Downing regarded the rigid linearity of earlier times as inflexible, inartistic, uninteresting, and unnatural. A curved approach also allowed one to see the elegance of the façade as well as one of the side elevations. However, Downing cautions, “the curves should never be so great, or lead over surfaces so unequal, as to make it disagreeable to drive upon them . . . [and] the road should never curve without some reason.” But, take note! “Since the modern style has become partially known and adopted here, some persons appear to have supposed that nature ‘has a horror of straight lines,’ and . . . they immediately ran into the other extreme, filling their grounds with zig-zag and regularly serpentine roads, still more horrible, which can only be compared to the contortions of a wounded snake.”
The Treatise repeatedly emphasizes the importance of a unified connection between the house and grounds. “If our readers will imagine, with us, a pretty villa conveniently arranged and well constructed, . . . properly placed in a smooth well kept lawn, studded with groups and masses of fine trees, . . . however there is felt to be a certain incongruity between the house, a highly artificial object,” and the “beautiful nature” of the “surrounding grounds.” How could the two be more harmoniously linked? Downing suggests a terrace, perhaps with a wall or balustrade adorned with urns and vases. And “on the drawing-room side of the house, that is, the side towards which the best room or rooms look, we will place the flower garden.” Now, he says, “the mind is led gradually down from the house.”
Downing was inspired by the eighteenth-century British ideals of the beautiful (“graceful,” “general,” or “natural” beauty, to use his terms), which was “characterized by simple and flowing forms,” and picturesque beauty, which was “expressed by striking, irregular, spirited forms.” “We think the Grecian and Roman styles [of architecture] (especially the former) should be chosen . . . when the landscape is that of graceful beauty.” “The Tudor and Rural Gothic styles are . . . most happily exhibited in connection with picturesque scenery.” “Graceful” and “picturesque” landscape designs complemented the various architectural styles of the 1840s—from Greek Revival to Gothic Revival to Italianate.
In 1841, Downing observed that “within the last ten years, especially, the evidences of the growing wealth and prosperity of our citizens have become apparent in the great increase of elegant cottage and villa residences . . . wherever nature seems to invite us by her rich and varied charms.” The Bartow mansion was built between 1836 and 1842, exactly during this period. Did Robert Bartow (who, by the way, was a retired book publisher) read Downing’s treatise and follow some of his advice?
The estates of two of Robert and Maria Bartow’s neighbors appear in the 1844 and 1849 editions. “The seat of John Hunter, Esq., is a place of much simplicity and dignity of character. The whole island may be considered an extensive park, carpeted with soft lawn and studded with noble trees.” The classicism of Hunter’s estate—which reflected Downing’s idea of graceful beauty—contrasted with Robert Bolton’s Gothic Revival pile built in 1838, an example of the picturesque. “A highly unique residence in the old English style is Pelham Priory, the seat of the Rev. Robert Bolton, near New Rochelle, N. Y. The exterior is massive and picturesque . . . it has at once the appearance of considerable antiquity . . . and one may more easily fancy himself in one of those ‘mansions builded curiously’ of our ancestors in the time of ‘good Queen Bess.’”
In 1836, Mr. and Mrs. Bartow purchased the estate that had once belonged to his Bartow and Pell ancestors, and over the next six years, the couple built a new house on the property. “The present proprietor has lately erected a fine stone house, in the Grecian style, which presents a neat front with projecting wings,” their neighbor Robert Bolton Jr. wrote in A Guide to New Rochelle and Its Vicinity in 1842, the year in which the mansion was completed.
Although scant documentation from the 1840s has been found, it appears that perhaps Robert Bartow was influenced by some—but not all—of Downing’s principles. A couple of later sources provide a few clues. In 1885, when the Bartow family still owned the property, a plan of the estate was published that is comparable to one in the 1844 edition of Downing’s treatise. Both plans feature a curved approach road leading to and from the house; a secondary road to the outbuildings; open lawns; a combination of scattered and massed groups of trees; “fine distant views . . . through the vistas in the lines;” and an orchard set off to one side near the public road.
The Bartow mansion sits on a small knoll, and the 1885 plan indicates that—like today—there was a terrace at the rear of the mansion facing Long Island Sound, providing a link between the house and grounds. Downing, however, would have called the uniform rows of trees lining the carriage drive a “violation” of “the principle of unity” because they were at odds with a “natural” grouping of trees and shrubs. In his opinion, this type of incongruous arrangement showed a deplorable “absence of correct taste in art.” And the great man probably would have been appalled by the awkwardly random shrubs at the front of the house that appear in an 1870 photograph. By this time—about thirty years after the grounds would have been laid out—much of the original planting scheme may have been abandoned. Although Robert Bartow possibly followed some of Downing’s modern guidelines for graceful beauty, it is noteworthy that the 1844 edition of the Treatise did not include the Bartows’ new mansion but instead praised both the nearby Hunter and Bolton properties.
As Robert Bartow wandered around his estate in the early 1840s and watched the fine new house and outbuildings taking shape, he must have been thinking about his vision for landscaping and gardens. Was he pondering Downing’s modern ideas? Perhaps Bartow admired both traditional designs as well as more contemporary ones, and the mansion’s grounds were a mixture of both. At any rate, it is probably safe to say that he wholeheartedly agreed with Downing’s desire to use landscape gardening “to embody our ideal of a rural home.” (1844)
Margaret Highland, Bartow-Pell Historian
Unless otherwise noted, the 1841 edition of Downing’s Treatise has been quoted here.
Luminous, colorful, undulating—and sometimes even iridescent—the new French ombré wallpapers and textiles of the 1820s were so vibrant that these nuanced designs in shades of one or more colors were often called rainbow patterns. They were also known as irisé (iridescent), ombré (shaded), and fondu (melted).
The Industrial Revolution was an age when manufacturers produced exciting new goods for an expanding consumer market. In his 1846 treatise on dyeing and printing calico, the British chemist Edward A. Parnell put it like this: “At the present time, science and its applications seem to go onward almost together. No sooner is a new fact announced than it is made available for some useful purpose, and never was there an age so fertile in discovery as that in which we live.” Rainbow patterns fit the zeitgeist perfectly.
It all started with wallpaper. In about 1820, the legendary Zuber factory in Alsace began making papers with shaded grounds composed of subtle gradations in tone from dark to light (which could also be overprinted with another pattern). In order to achieve this effect, Jean Zuber used an innovative printing technique developed in 1819 by his relative Michel Spoerlin of Vienna, which allowed several colors to blend together like the rainbow. Twenty years later, in 1839, the British chemist Andrew Ure wrote about printing rainbow papers with blocks: “The fondu or rainbow style of paper-hangings . . . is produced by means of an assortment of oblong narrow tin pans, fixed in a frame, close side to side . . .; the colours of the prismatic spectrum, red, orange, yellow, green, &c., are put, in a liquid state, successively in these pans, so that when the oblong brush . . . is dipped into them across the whole of the parallel row at once, it comes out impressed with the different colours at successive points.” A printing block—used later in the process—“takes up the colour in rainbow hues and transfers these to the paper.”
Textiles began to be produced in ombré palettes not long after Zuber’s irisé papers first appeared, and the astonishing array of fabrics in the new rainbow-striped patterns must have delighted shoppers in the 1820s. In 1826, the author of “London Letters to Country Cousins” gushes about the dazzling new and colorful fashions: “I do not think anything so beautiful in its way was ever before invented as the patterns of morning dresses of this season. . . . The prevailing trait of them has been brilliance and variety of colours—chiefly the primitive, or rainbow colours—and often all these united in one pattern. But the effect produced in many cases has been what I could not have thought possible—a species of optical illusion, produced by printing one pattern over another, and sometimes two—so as to give the impression of seeing one through the other.”
Over the next few decades, rich and inventive ombré designs would be especially eye- catching on cotton, silk, and light wool dress fabrics. These effects were achieved through various methods, including block-printing, roller (cylinder) printing, and the use of brushes. In A Practical Treatise on Dyeing and Calico-Printing (1846), Parnell discusses improvements patented by Louis Joseph Wallerand in 1844 that “consist in giving shaded stripes of color to woolen, silk, cotton, or other fabrics . . . in a more expeditious, economic, and perfect manner,” adding that the same machine “may also be used for dyeing shaded stripes to form a ground upon fabrics intended afterwards to receive a printed pattern.” In 1846, the French chemist Jean-François Persoz wrote in detail about the printing and dyeing process in his four-volume work Traité théorique et pratique de l’impression des tissus (Theoretical and Practical Treatise on Printing Fabrics). And on June 21, 1849, the British civil engineer Charles Augustus Holm was awarded a patent for “machinery for shading or printing paper, silk, and other fabrics with one or more colours . . . to produce greater intensity of colour or, as they are termed, rainbow patterns.” His system used movable, perpendicular blocks in combination with a “vacuum table” and “atmospheric pressure.”
American manufacturers at this time were scrappy competitors in the busy domestic market for printed fabrics. Demand was high. Women in the 1840s, for example, required about eight yards of fabric every time they wanted a new dress (not including the lining). The Proceedings of the National Convention for the Protection of American Interests (1842) tells us that thirty-seven factories in the United States printed 158,028,000 yards of calico in 1840, but it also reports that Americans imported vast amounts of dyed, printed, colored, and white cotton cloth from abroad. Furthermore, a British government committee on copyrights in the design industry, published in 1840, points out that a high American import tax did very little to stop large quantities of calico being exported to the United States, especially from Manchester. (British mills, however, relied heavily on American cotton for their raw materials.) American “printers turn out good work; calicoes are manufactured there, and the machines are constructed upon as good a principle as in England.”
John Royle, a master engraver for calico printers in Manchester, appeared before the British government’s Select Committee on Copyright Designs on May 11, 1840. He had worked in the American calico-printing industry in New York and Providence from 1831 to 1837 and testified that he was one of many Englishmen in the trade who had been induced by higher wages and more regular work to emigrate to America. Royle warned that the Americans “are making very rapid progress” and were soon likely to become England’s rival in the print trade. He also noted that manufacturers in the United States produced both original designs and copies of English and French patterns. French calicos were also exported to the United States, and according to Daniel Lee, a merchant in Manchester, “Many Americans have establishments in Paris for the express purpose of purchasing prints there.” As for ombré prints, John Brooks—who had worked in the Manchester calico-printing trade for thirty years—complained that other British manufacturers were copying his style of rainbow patterns because “now there is a rage for shades.”
The fashion for ombré dress fabrics continued into the 1850s. “A decided novelty is the soie arc-en-ciel. This “rainbow silk” is made in various colours,” The Ladies’ Companion announced in March 1852, “but we may describe two or three dresses. One has a deep flounce, shaded in shot from a dark to a light blue. . . . Another, in a similar style, has all the shades of rose colour shot with white. . . . A third is shaded from a full blue to white.”
Rainbow patterns were also very well suited for the flat-woven floor coverings known as Venetian carpets, which were commonly found in bedchambers and on stairs. “The pattern is generally in stripes and shaded like the rainbow, and the great object of the manufacturer is to bring off the shade of colour from dark to light imperceptibly,” The Saturday Magazine (London) related on December 24, 1836. Today, some fragments of these carpets survive in museum collections. Click here to see a magnificent example dating to 1830–60 at Old Sturbridge Village. Shaded colors were used on patterned ingrain (flat-woven and reversible) carpets as well.
The influence of ombré shades can be seen in other items ranging from fashion accessories to embroidery to ceramics. Miss Warble, a character in The Lion: A Tale of the Coteries (1839), wears “a flaunting rainbow shawl.” Shaded ribbons were popular trimmings for bonnets. And in 1854, Mrs. Ann S. Stephens gave her opinion on the current trend for ombré embroidery silk in The Ladies’ Complete Guide to Crochet, Fancy Knitting, and Needlework: “Waistcoats and other articles are now much embroidered in soie ombre, that is silk shaded in varieties of one colour. I cannot say I think it so pretty as the variety of natural colors, or even a single self-shade. It is, however, fashionable.”
The smallest things sometimes have a larger story to tell. In this case, a tiny embroidered flower on a dress trimming at Bartow-Pell reminds us of one of the creative wonders made possible by nineteenth-century technology.
In honor of Women’s History Month, BPMM Education Committee Chair and board member Joseph P. Cordasco discusses the different lives of two women—both born in the nineteenth century—whose portraits hang at Bartow-Pell.
When I tour historic places, I often wonder to myself: “If only these walls could talk, what treasured tales they could tell.” As we celebrate Women’s History Month at the Bartow-Pell Mansion, we have not one but two walls that “talk.” They tell the tales of women struggling for empowerment at a time when final decisions were left to men. On the wall of our sitting room hangs a double portrait of a young married couple living a comfortable life in mid-nineteenth-century America. There’s nothing particularly special about Daniel MacFarlan and his wife, Mary Jane. You will find no Wikipedia page devoted to either one of them, yet their portrait perfectly illustrates a time when women lived in a world where they struggled to find a voice. Let’s explore the nuances revealed in this painting.
Daniel MacFarlan is standing next to his seated wife. Dressed in their finery, they appear to be a loving couple successfully navigating their lives. This is likely to have been the case, especially when one considers that they commissioned this painting by a prominent artist of the 1850s, Theodore Pine. In the background, we can see an idyllic riparian scene, not an unusual background for a double portrait during this period. The scene shows Mrs. MacFarlan’s ancestral home, which was located in the lower Hudson Valley near present-day Newburgh, N.Y. Maria and Robert Bartow could have commissioned a similar portrait of themselves on their estate overlooking Long Island Sound.
Mr. MacFarlan is finely dressed in a fashionable black coat, the dominant figure in the painting. He grips his top hat in one hand, which rests confidently on his hip next to the gold chain of his pocket watch. One gets the impression that he has successfully engaged with the world beyond his home. Politics, commerce, and social competition are likely to be getting most of his attention beyond the role of breadwinner. We know, in fact, that he tried his hand at various businesses and even decided at one point to run for elective office.
Mrs. MacFarlan is seated in her husband’s shadow wearing a black dress with white lace accents. If we were living back then, we would quickly recognize that she is wearing the apparel of grief. The mourning brooch pinned to her neckline probably contains the carefully woven hair of a dead child, and the artist further obliges her by placing a rosebud in her hand, symbolizing a life not brought to full bloom. Indeed, the MacFarlans lost a daughter, Marietta, three years before this painting was made. Society expected women of her station to memorialize their loss to the community, and she would have worn several ensembles over time, each marking a particular stage of her bereavement. A similar mourning brooch might well have been found on Maria Bartow’s vanity as well, for she lost two children within days of each other.
In contrast, we would be hard pressed to note any outward sign of Daniel MacFarlan’s grief. Indeed, it was considered unmanly to grieve the loss of a loved one, at least in public, for to do so would have revealed one’s weakness. Grief was a burden that society expected women to bear alone. Although the painting appears to show this young couple facing life on an equal footing, such a relationship was far from reality in America at this time. Living in a world dominated exclusively by men, women of the upper and middle classes were taught from childhood that their special calling was to be a “devoted wife” and “loving mother,” termed by some historians the “Cult of Domesticity.” The principle of “separate spheres” appeared to be accepted by both men and women as they carried out their respective roles in society.
Family, home life, and morality summed up the wife’s inward focus. It was in the home where her husband would find the support and the refuge he needed in what his wife must have considered a mysterious and seemingly turbulent world beyond the front door. A married woman was legally dependent on her husband and enjoyed no more rights within her marriage than her children did. Worse yet, women had no legal way to leave an abusive relationship. Under federalism, it was up to each state to enact laws giving women marriage equality, and it wasn’t until 1848, just two years before the MacFarlans married, that New York State would be one of the few states to enact laws that gradually gave married women rights within marriage. Before then, Mrs. MacFarlan could not legally own property, spend money, or even prepare her own will without her husband’s consent.
However, this change in the law, although welcomed by women, was largely driven by the boom-and-bust cycles of the American economy, as husbands saw the benefit of sheltering assets in the names of their wives. Marital inequality had been a matter of English Common Law, a legacy of our colonial heritage, but it was one of the nagging issues that captured the attention of women at the 1848 Seneca Falls Convention, where women activists gathered together to fight for greater equality, especially for the right to vote. It is likely that both Mrs. Bartow and Mrs. MacFarlan were aware of the convention and followed its progress within their social circles. This would become a decades-long fight led by women such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony, although at times competing strategies among women’s groups complicated their progress. Ultimately, a national organization was formed to put unrelenting political pressure on Congress, and by 1920, the passage of the 19th Amendment guaranteeing universal suffrage was secured.
Over the course of the nineteenth century, women increasingly demanded a larger role in society beyond the home. Female seminaries began to offer young ladies a more rigorous education, and it soon became evident that formal education would be a gateway to a more fulfilling life. Although the teaching profession, closely allied to parenting, had always been accepted for women, other professions were not. Undaunted, strong women continually challenged the traditional mores. By the second half of the century, colleges like Vassar (1865), Wellesley (1875), and Smith (1875), among others, were admitting only female students. Many of them established roles for themselves in the issues of the day, advocating for temperance and abolition and eliminating discrimination between the sexes. Unfortunately, access to a high-quality education was limited for many years to white women born to privilege.
In another corner of the mansion, you will find the portrait of Zelia Krumbhaar Hoffman, who used her voice and her position to advance the role of women in shaping a new century. Let’s meet her.
Wearing a fashionable 1920s evening gown, Zelia Hoffman appears self-assured in this portrait. She stands rather than sits, with her eyes engaged, which suggests the activism that characterized her life. Born in Indiana in 1867, Zelia Krumbhaar Preston and her upper-class family lived in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Europe, and New York. We know little of her early years, but she went on to attend Oxford University, which may have contributed to her lifelong love affair with England. At 33, she married Charles Fredrick Hoffman, scion of a wealthy family with holdings in real estate and insurance. Blessed with “boundless drive and energy,” Zelia was not content to be the passive wife of a Gilded Age businessman. A suffragist at heart, she supported the push for the nineteenth amendment. As a result of her interest in horticulture and garden design, Zelia became instrumental in forming the International Garden Club (IGC), and it was through her efforts that the old Bartow mansion was repurposed as its headquarters. Funds were raised and spent to transform a tired-looking estate into a world-class garden club. The Great War (World War I) temporarily short-circuited her plans, but Zelia, undaunted, plunged right into the war effort. She headed several committees to provide war relief on the home front. When she heard of a milk shortage that threatened the health of infants living in New York City‘s tenements, perhaps resulting from a scheme to drive up prices, she quickly organized a dairy farm in the lower Hudson Valley to fill the need. As head of the National Special Aid Society, Zelia supported American volunteer airmen fighting side by side with French fighter pilots as they formed the Lafayette Escadrille. It was hoped that this early military aviation unit would influence American public opinion into pressuring President Wilson to abandon his policy of neutrality.
In 1919, after the war’s end and in the wake of her husband’s death, Zelia relocated to England. She soon became a British subject, but she remained active in progressive causes. After heading the local Women’s Liberal Association, she stood for Parliament in 1929, one of the few women in that period to run for a position as a Member of Parliament. She died quietly a few months after her election loss.
During her remarkable life, Zelia Hoffman never saw a problem that effective leadership couldn’t solve. She consistently networked, making use of all the resources at her disposal. She refused to be the woman who stood by; she lived to lean in.
Like Zelia Hoffman, nineteenth-century women built launching pads for their granddaughters and great-granddaughters, so that they could continue to shatter glass ceilings on their way to the stars.
Joseph P. Cordasco, Education Committee Chair, Bartow-Pell Board of Directors