Spills: Let There Be Light


What in the world are spills?

A British dictionary published in 1855 defined a spill as “A strip of paper rolled up to light a lamp or cigar.” The word loosely derives from “spile,” a small wooden peg. Although “spills” had been around for a long time, the term was not in use until the 19th century, when it first appeared in British dictionaries. Americans seem to have picked it up a little later, and in 1877 Webster’s defined a spill as: “A small roll of paper or slip of wood for lighting lamps, and the like.” For many years, people simply used expressions such as “pieces of paper,” a “paper match,” a paper “candle-lighter,” or a “neatly twisted paper cigar-lighter.” Wax tapers were also commonly used to light lamps and candles. “You should have some wax tapers on purpose to light your candles with, as paper makes a dirt, and flies about the room; besides it generally sticks to the candle and causes it to burn dim,” Robert Roberts recommended in his 1827 House Servant’s Directory. And in 1848, Chambers’s Information for the People pointed out: “It is always safest to light candles and lamps with a small wax taper, which can be at once blown out.”

DP266324 MMA spill vase

Spill Vase, 1830–70. Probably made in Bennington, Vermont. Parian porcelain. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Dr. Charles W. Green, 1947, 47.90.16

Spills were usually placed in vases on the mantel to provide easy access to the fire from which they were lighted. In 1869, Catharine Beecher and her sister Harriet Beecher Stowe advised: “Lamps should be lighted with a strip of folded or rolled paper, of which a quantity should be kept on the mantelpiece.” Spill vases were made of glass, ceramic, and other materials and can sometimes be seen in paintings and drawings of the period, such as John Carlin’s painting Forbidden Fruit (1874).

Before the invention of matches, lighting fires was difficult. People had to use a tinder box, which contained a piece of flint, a steel striker, and tinder, such as charred rags. These items would produce a spark that could ignite a brimstone (sulfur)-coated “match” with which to transfer the flame. Vigilance was the order of the day if one wanted to keep the home fires burning. The safety match (which was made with red phosphorous) made life a lot easier, but it was not in common use until after 1860.

1878 Godey's spills

“Fancy Spills,” Godey’s Lady’s Book, September 1878

People made spills at home from writing paper, old newspapers, and even colored paper. In 1850, Eliza Leslie wrote: “They should be made of waste writing paper cut into long slips, and folded, and creased very hard. If of newspaper or any other that is not stiff enough, the flame will run along them so fast as to endanger your fingers.” Although Leslie advised against making spills out of newspaper, a story published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in 1876 described an impoverished woman using newspaper spills as a light source for nighttime reading because she had no candles.

Fancy ornamental spills combined home décor with practicality. Nineteenth-century craft gurus provided instructions in magazines, just as Martha Stewart would do today. “To make ornamental spills, bright coloured papers, and also gold and silver paper are needed,” Cassell’s Household Guide directed in 1869. And Miss Matty Jenkyns, a character in Elizabeth Gaskell’s 1853 novel Cranford, excelled in making “candle-lighters, or ‘spills’ (as she preferred calling them), of coloured paper, cut so as to resemble feathers.”

People who like to curl up with a good 19th-century novel will find other scattered mentions of spills. Sometimes they are even used as clues in Victorian detective stories, such as in “The Blue Dragoon” (1855): “The police had not smoked, and, therefore, the thieves could be the only persons who had thrown the spill on this spot.” And there’s this riveting passage from After Dark (1856), a collection of short stories by Wilkie Collins, the master of the sensation novel:

“Give me two minutes,” says I, “and don’t let anybody come near the door—whatever you do, don’t let anybody startle me again by coming near the door.”

I took a little pull at the thread, and heard something rustle. I took a longer pull, and out came a piece of paper, rolled up tight like those candle-lighters that ladies make. I unrolled it—and, by George! there was the letter!

Cranford, 1892 edition

Illustration by Hugh Thomson from an 1892 edition of Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell. Spill vases flank the mantelpiece.

Spills are now largely forgotten, but their history can inspire us as we light our candles this holiday season: “I love candles. A wax candle is one of the prettiest and most graceful things imaginable. . . . How reliable it is; the instant it is held to the spill it lighteth cheerfully, and when its services are no longer required, how . . . amiably it allows itself to be put out” (The Welcome Guest, 1860).

Margaret Highland, Historian

The holidays are here, and what better time to experience the festive beauty of light? Please join us for Bartow-Pell’s annual Candlelight Tours and Victorian Carolers on Saturday, December 9, 6–8 p.m. Details on www.bpmm.org


Victorian carolers perform at Bartow-Pell’s annual Candlelight Tours.

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A Bartow Thanksgiving, 1843

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The Bartow mansion today in autumn


In the 1840s, the mansion might have looked like this on Thanksgiving Day.

Thanksgiving on December 14? Yes, that’s right, if we’re talking about New York in 1843. At that time, individual states determined when—and if—an official recognition of the Thanksgiving holiday would occur. In fact, the New-York Daily Tribune reported on November 22, 1843, that only 14 states (out of 26) would observe public Thanksgiving, “three of them for the first time.” Formal celebrations ranged from November 3 (Georgia) to December 14 (New York). In 1863, President Lincoln proclaimed the “last Thursday of November” as a national day of “Thanksgiving and Praise,” at the urging of the magazine editor and writer Sarah Josepha Hale.

Brook Farm aka Pondfield

Frontispiece for Brook Farm by James Bolton, 1859. This memoir, in which the place names were changed, is about Pondfield Farm in Bronxville, where the Bartows’ neighbors, the Boltons, lived before moving to nearby Pelham.

Bartow neighbor James Bolton described the excitement of a country Thanksgiving in Westchester County:

Thanksgiving Day was a green spot in our anticipations; schools gave holidays; families gathered into narrower circles of love; city cousins arrived overnight to share our country pleasures. The very finest turkey—the peer amongst peers—was handed over to the cook. . . . Sisters lay out all their art on pumpkin pies; and new bonnets and neck-ties are to be seen hid in drawers, in a chrysalis state, ready and waiting for this grand Thanksgiving Day.

Robert and Maria Bartow must have been thrilled to finally move into their splendid Greek Revival mansion on Long Island Sound in 1842 after six years of construction. The family had moved from New York City to their country seat by at least 1838 and lived there year-round, according to the family’s tutor. During that time, they would have stayed in a now-demolished older house until their new residence was ready. On December 14, 1843, the lively household bustled with two teenagers and four children under the age of six, and the family would have celebrated their first or second Thanksgiving in the brand-new residence. Let’s imagine what the day was like.

St. Paul's Church

St. Paul’s Church, Eastchester. Illustration from A History of the County of Westchester by Robert Bolton Jr., 1848

The Bartows and their older children, dressed in their Sunday best, would have ridden in one of the family’s carriages to Thanksgiving services at St. Paul’s Church in Eastchester (now Mount Vernon), where Mr. Bartow had recently served on the vestry and their neighbor Robert Bolton was the rector. (Bolton was concurrently serving at the newly consecrated Christ Church in Pelham.) According to Reverend Bolton’s son James, the colonial-era church “stood by itself on a green knoll at the entrance of the village. . . . Adjoining the church was a hundred-and-fifty-feet carriage shed, built . . . for the comfort and convenience of the worshippers. . . . We drove into this famous shed . . . and left the whole row [of horses]—two or three dozen—in charge of a single man.” Some New York journalists joked about parishioners dozing “away in the house of God” during the Thanksgiving Day sermon, but the devout Bartows probably enjoyed participating in worship and exchanging holiday greetings with their neighbors.

Arrival at the Old Home

Winslow Homer (1836–1910). Thanksgiving Day—Arrival at the Old Home. Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, November 27, 1858

When the service was over, the family coachman would drive them home, where the other servants were busy preparing the holiday table. Because it was mid-December, the Bartows would have observed a wintry landscape as they looked out the carriage windows on the chilly three-mile ride back to the mansion. The following year, on December 11, 1844, the first snowstorm of the season fell on Thanksgiving eve. The next day, the New-York Daily Tribune reported:

Last night, about 7 o’clock, an old-fashioned, first-rate, thorough-going snow-storm set in. . . . Thanksgiving is nothing without snow enough on the ground to look like sleighing, at least . . . and let us give thanks for having this essential concomitant in the Thanksgiving treat. A gingle [sic] of sleigh-bells is the best music we know of for a dinner on this merry-making day.

The Dinner

Winslow Homer. Thanksgiving Day—The Dinner. Harper’s Weekly, 1858

Dining Room

Dining room at Bartow-Pell. In the 19th century, however, the north parlor may have been used for large formal dinner parties.

“After church you assemble for dinner—such a dinner! Bless the cook—you can smell it from the farthest field,” enthused James Bolton. In addition to menu staples such as turkey and pumpkin pie, Bolton reminisced that “the farmers of West Chester country” slaughtered pigs in preparation for Thanksgiving, and “you would see them . . . hanging in rows on a rail.” After saying grace, Mr. Bartow would have been expected to carve the turkey. “Every person standing at the head of a family should be well informed upon the general principles of carving,” advised the author of The American Family Keepsake in 1849. Bolton recounted that “toasts are drunk [to] ‘The President, . . . Our Happy Country, and All absent kith and kin, in a bumper.’”

The Dance

Winslow Homer. Thanksgiving Day—The Dance. Harper’s Weekly, 1858

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Bartow-Pell’s double parlors

Dancing and games such as blindman’s buff were 19th-century Thanksgiving traditions, and, in the evening, the family would have enjoyed these activities in the double parlors. This was the perfect opportunity for Mr. and Mrs. Bartow to show off their impressive new house, and perhaps they invited friends and neighbors from nearby country estates to join in the fun. Oil lamps and wax candles illuminated the mansion’s high-ceilinged rooms; crystal prisms and mirror glass glittered in reflected light; and fireplaces with elegant marble mantels provided welcome warmth and cheer. According to tutor Augustus Moore, the Bartows lived in “first style” and had “servants and waiters in abundance.” They were “free, social and kind.” Clearly, a good time was guaranteed at their evening parties.

The Bartows now lived year-round in the new mansion but had they remained in Manhattan, they could have taken advantage of plenty of family entertainment on Thanksgiving Day. A circus, or “grand juvenile fete,” amused children at Niblo’s Garden (a well-known theater on Broadway), and P. T. Barnum’s American Museum offered “extra attractions,” along with performances by a gypsy family, a fortune teller, and five-year-old Tom Thumb on his first American tour.

And what about the servants? Obviously Thanksgiving Day involved extra work, and that has not changed for holiday personnel in the food-service industry. Hopefully, the staff was able to feast on some special dishes below stairs at some point during the busy day. Furthermore, most of the Bartow servants were recent immigrants, and participating in the tradition of Thanksgiving would have been an important cultural experience for these new Americans.

If Mr. or Mrs. Bartow had settled into a comfortable chair with the New York Herald on December 15, 1843, they might have read this rather cynical but clear-eyed account of the previous day:

Yesterday was celebrated with the accustomed variety of taste, feeling, spirit, and propriety. The Saints went to church—dozed—dreamed of stocks and the turkey in danger of being over-roasted at home; then, in the evening, had their little parties, cracked their nuts and their jokes and sipped their wine. . . silks and satins rustled . . . brilliant chandeliers burned brightly in the evening in splendid mansions—the poor shivered in the lanes and alleys . . . wealth reveled—poverty gnashed its teeth . . . and the great stream of human happiness and suffering flowed on as it has, and ever will, to the end of time.

James Bolton had an unreservedly bright and sunny view of Thanksgiving Day: “So loth were we to let the day go, that we used to hang on to its last shred, and even allow it to drag us over the boundary-line into to-morrow morning! Thanksgiving days are good for body, soul, and spirit.” And, in 1843, the Bartows would surely have agreed.


Louis Maurer (1832–1932), artist, and Currier & Ives, publisher. “Trotting Cracks” on the Snow, 1858. Hand-colored lithograph with tint stone. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Adele S. Colgate, 1962

Over the river, and through the wood,

To Grandfather’s house we go;

The horse knows the way to carry the sleigh

Through the white and drifted snow.

Lydia Maria Child, “The New-England Boy’s Song about Thanksgiving Day,” 1845

For more on Thanksgiving in the 19th century, see Chicken Pie and Blindman’s Buff: What You Might Not Know about an Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving and James Bolton’s Brook Farm: The Amusing and Memorable of American Country Life.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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A Peek Inside the Wardrobe: Busks, Gloves, Shawls, and Shoes

This post discusses some of the fashion accessories in Bartow-Pell’s fall exhibition, The “Quiet Circle”: Women and Girls in 19th-Century America, on view until November 19.


Satin Slippers, ca. 1835–50. Silk and leather. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum

Sometimes part of the fun of going to museums is seeing objects that are ordinarily tucked away in storage. For a couple more weeks, visitors to our fall exhibition can take a peek at some 19th-century fashion accessories from the museum’s collection. In this post, we will take a look at a few of those things: a corset busk, a pair of gloves, a shawl, and some shoes.

Corset Busk

Corset busk, first half of the 19th century. Wood. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum TC2012.83

Corset busks were long, thin pieces of wood, ivory, bone, or steel with rounded ends that were slipped into a center pocket running down the front of the corset to provide more rigid support to the upper torso. In the 1840s, for example, a two- to three-inch-wide wooden busk was inserted in an elongated narrow corset and worn under the stiff, flattened bodices that were so popular during this decade. In the second half of the 19th century, better-engineered corsets with steel-supported front openings eliminated the need for separate busks.


Corset, American, 1840s. Cotton. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Albert S. Morrow, 1937. Elongated, back-fastening corsets in the 1840s had casing for a busk at the front, as seen here.

Gloves back

Ladies’ gloves (back), 1880s. Leather. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum. Tan kid gloves were a popular choice in the 1880s.

Gloves were worn in public by 19th-century ladies. Various occasions required different styles, but basic leather gloves were suitable for everyday wear. In 1855, The Illustrated Manners Book advised: “Choose good, well made gloves. . . . They are worn in the street, at church, at the theater, concerts, balls, and at all large and formal evening parties. . . . In small and informal companies, gloves may be dispensed with.” In 1880, 663,813 dozen pairs of gloves (which would have included ones for women, men, and children) were imported to this country, mostly from France, Germany, and England. Like other accessories, gloves changed with the times. Peterson’s Magazine described what ladies were wearing in April 1882: “Tan-colored gloves are universally worn, some preferring the light shades, others the dark ones; but no one now thinks of matching the gloves with the dress, as tan assimilates, according to present fashion, with black, white, and colored dresses.”

French kid gloves advertisement

Advertisement for French-imported kid leather gloves. R. H. Macy’s & Co.’s Catalogue for 1877–8

Paisley Shawl

Shawl (detail), French or British, ca. 1860. Wool. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum TC2012.36

Another must-have accessory for decades was the paisley shawl. These luxury items were first made in Kashmir, but Europeans developed a more affordable version. The Scottish town of Paisley—a pioneering production center of imitation Kashmir shawls—lent its name to the fashion. Other manufacturers were located in France and England. In 1860, Godey’s Lady’s Book described consumers’ appetite for these stylish goods and warned that some “India shawls” sold in American shops were actually made in France:

The passion for India shawls still continues, and, in fact, is greater than ever. The daily prints advertise them in all manner of attractiveness, and one scarcely meets an acquaintance without an India scarf spread over her shoulders. Not that they all come honestly by their name; not at all. A very large part sold under the far-famed title have never travelled farther than France, and the odor of sandal-wood . . . is contracted in the sandal-lined chest of the American shop in which it was purchased.

Godey’s breathlessly goes on to describe the prices of real Kashmir shawls in Paris or London as “almost fabulous, a long shawl costing from $1000 to $5000.” But “the French manufacturers and the American importers” provided shawls at “prices ranging from one to five hundred dollars—quite a difference.” This was still a lot of money in 1860, but somehow many women found the means to own one of these beautiful textiles.

W1893-1-106-CX Phila

Alfred-Émile-Léopold Stevens (Belgian, 1823–1906). Departing for the Promenade (Will You Go Out with Me, Fido?), 1859. Oil on panel. The Philadephia Museum of Art, The W. P. Wilstach Collection, bequest of Anna H. Wilstach, 1893

Shawls changed over time to accommodate evolving silhouettes. Stole-like wraps complemented the simple high-waisted classical gowns of the early republic, but larger shawls were required for the huge crinolines of the middle of the century, when rectangular styles grew to the enormous proportions of about five feet wide by ten or eleven feet long. After 1870, these voluminous paisley shawls went out of fashion because they did not drape well over bustles.

Gaiter boots

Gaiter boots, ca. 1830–55. Wool, silk, and leather. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Elizabeth P. Brooks TC2012.59a,b

Now let’s turn to shoes. Side-laced gaiter boots were made of wool or silk with leather foxing (pieces of leather on the heels and toes). Boots without heels were worn from about 1830 to 1855. Godey’s encouraged American women in 1843 to do as the French did: “You never see ladies in Paris walking in thin slippers . . . they wear abroad gaiter boots, either thick or thin, according to the season. I think a handsome foot and ankle never appear better than in such boots.” For prudish readers, the author added a moralistic note: “And surely there is a propriety when walking out, and exposed to dust or mud, that the feet should be well protected; and propriety is the fundamental law of good taste.”

NY Herald 11.12.1845

Advertisement for ladies’ gaiter boots and satin slippers in the New York Herald, November 12, 1845

Satin Slippers

Satin Slippers, ca. 1835–50. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum

Dainty oval- or square-toed slippers were another wardrobe staple, and these flat shoes with thin leather soles were popular from the early to the mid-19th century. They were made with leather uppers for daytime wear and white satin for dressy occasions. These pretty slippers could be customized with bows, rosettes, and ribbon ankle ties. Household doyenne Eliza Leslie advised cleaning the shoes with “a piece of new white flannel dipped in spirits of wine. If slightly soiled, you may clean them by rubbing with stale bread.” She also instructed readers to keep their satin shoes in “blue paper closely wrapped, with coarse brown paper outside” in a covered box. The slippers in BPMM’s exhibition—like many shoes in the first half of the 19th century—are “straights” and could be worn on either the right or left foot.

Fashion accessories can be fascinating examples of material culture, and a peek in the wardrobe raises a few questions. What can these objects tell us about life in 19th-century America? And what can they teach us about society’s expectations for women at that time?

Margaret Highland, Exhibition Curator

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Haunting Likenesses: The Anonymous 19th-Century Woman in Photographic Portraits

This post discusses photographic portraits in Bartow-Pell’s fall exhibition, The “Quiet Circle”: Women and Girls in 19th-Century America, on view until November 19.

The faces look out at us. Their eyes lock ours. Long ago, they stared into a camera and time stopped. Who are the sitters in these haunting portraits?

Bartow-Pell’s fall exhibition includes several photographic portraits of anonymous 19th-century women and a young girl. The images are revealing, but most of the details of the sitters’ lives will probably always be an enigma. In any case, aren’t most of us intrigued by a good mystery? Isn’t that part of the legendary allure of the Mona Lisa, for example?

The daguerreotype introduced photography to Americans in 1839, and it must have seemed like a miracle. Although this process produced sharp and detailed images, the mirror-like silver surfaces were hard to read. Cheaper methods with better visibility, such as ambrotypes, tintypes, and cartes de visite, were developed in the 1850s. By then more and more people could afford to sit for the camera.

Ambrotype cropped

Young Girl, 1855–65. New England. Ambrotype. Gift of Barbara and Charles Dennis, Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum 2006.07

Let’s take a look at what may be the earliest portrait on display, an ambrotype taken in the 1850s or early 1860s of an unidentified member of the Dennis and Davis families, who lived near Hartford, Connecticut. (For an overview of ambrotypes and tintypes by the Library of Congress, click here.) The sitter is a girl who looks to be about twelve years old. She wears a light plaid dress (possibly for summer). Was it her favorite? The wide off-the-shoulder neckline for party dresses was popular with older girls from the 1840s to the 1860s. A heavy choker necklace with what is perhaps a large locket adorns her neck. Clearly, the young girl is from a well-to-do New England family, but other details are more subjective. She looks at the camera tentatively, and her hands rest demurely in her lap. Her facial expression and body language are timid, reserved, thoughtful, and even a bit anxious. But was she normally like this? Perhaps on that day, she was a little unsure about being photographed. After all, this was new technology in the mid-19th century. In addition, having your portrait taken was a special occurrence, and early photographs emerged from a long tradition of formal painted portraits in which serious expressions were acceptable. Furthermore, long exposure times made it difficult to hold a frozen smile, and poor dentistry probably didn’t encourage people to grin for posterity as we do in today’s toothy photos.


Dress, 1850. Probably American. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Irene Lewisohn Bequest, 1976

Tintypes were made on thin but sturdy metal sheets, which meant that the additional expense of brass mats, velvet linings, protective glass, and leather cases was merely optional instead of obligatory, as it was for daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, which were made with more fragile materials. There are two Civil War-era tintypes of women of modest means in BPMM’s exhibition.

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Young Woman and Infant, 1860–65. Tintype. Private collection

The first tintype depicts a young woman, who is perhaps still a teenager, holding an infant. Her clothing is unassuming but tidy, and her hairstyle is plain and practical. She wears what was probably her best outfit—a simple day dress, made of printed cotton, with white cuffs and a dressy collar held in place by the ubiquitous cameo brooch. An infant—who appears to be about six or seven months old—stares placidly at the camera and rests comfortably on the sitter’s lap, enfolded in her arms. The child wears a long white dress, which, at this period, was standard daily wear for infants until they became more mobile at about nine months old. The strong facial resemblance between the two figures indicates that this is a family portrait, rather than a photograph of a nursemaid for a well-to-do family with her charge. The pair is probably a mother and her child (although they could be siblings). In any case, this companionable twosome appears to be at ease with each other. A painted backdrop depicts a curtained window overlooking a landscape and represents an attempt by the photographer to create a genteel studio setting that linked his customers to respectable society.


Infant’s dress, mid-19th century. American. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Gift of Mrs. W. Rodman Peabody. www.mfa.org

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Domestic Servant, ca. 1863–65. Tintype. Private Collection

A second tintype in the exhibition likely portrays a domestic servant. Her dark calico dress with a gathered bodice is appropriate for household chores, and although she has ventured out to the photographer’s studio, she still wears her work apron. Did she have time off, or did she stop to have her photograph made while running errands during the work day? Writers of the period commented that servants often had a love of fashion, and, accordingly, the sitter wears a flower-trimmed straw hat in the latest style, a lace collar, and several pieces of jewelry. She is a confident woman who holds her head high, and she appears to feel like a million bucks attired in her finery. This proud working woman has large, capable hands and a no-nonsense expression on her open face with its hand-tinted rosy cheeks. The photographer’s tasseled velvet curtain imparts an air of elegance that belies the sitter’s humble station.

Godey July 1863

The same figure appeared a year later in Godey’s Lady’s Book, which helped to popularize French styles in the United States.

La Mode Illustree 1862 Leloir detail

Detail from a fashion plate by Héloïse Leloir, La Mode Illustrée, 1862. This hat is similar to the one in the tintype on display at BPMM.

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Woman in Mourning, 1860–65. Philadelphia. Carte de visite. Private Collection

Our last portrait is a carte de visite from the Civil War period, when these small photographs, which were printed on paper and mounted on card stock, were especially popular. This image of an unknown young woman in mourning was taken in Philadelphia. At that time, women were advised to wear deep black exclusively during the first period of mourning, including black “crape” veils over their faces. After the initial phase, white collars and white cuffs or undersleeves were allowed, as can be seen here. The sitter wears a well-made dress (perhaps made of bombazine, a silk-and-wool fabric) and a collar that is held in place by a black mourning brooch, which was likely fashioned from jet or gutta-percha (a hard rubberlike substance). Her hair is held in what appears to be a black-banded net. A wedding band is faintly visible on her left hand. Although we do not know whom she is mourning—her husband or a brother killed in the war; a relative who died from disease, an accident, or old age; or even her child—the sadness in her face tells us that it was someone she cared about deeply, and there is a transcendent stillness in her pose that suggests the physical effects of grief. The balloon-back chair and brocade-covered side table are typical studio props.


Mourning dress, ca. 1867. American. Cotton and silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Jacqueline Loewe Fowler Costume Collection, Gift of Jacqueline Loewe Fowler, 1982

This is only a minuscule sample of countless photographic portraits of forgotten (and unforgotten) faces that survive from the 19th century. These can be found in museums, private collections, family albums, flea markets, and online auctions. They teach us about everything from family history and social customs to clothing styles and photography practices. Even more, they radiate a sense of mystery that allows us to use our imagination to interpret these “faithful likenesses.”

Margaret Highland, Exhibition Curator

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They Will Do It Anyway: Bloomers, Cycling, and the New Woman

This post discusses an 1897 advertisement for bicycle tires in BPMM’s fall exhibition, The “Quiet Circle”: Women and Girls in 19th-Century America, on view until November 19.

New Brunswick Tire Co. Advertisement

Bicycle Tire Advertisement, 1897. New Brunswick Tire Company (New Jersey)

In 1898, the ex-governor of Ohio, Joseph B. Foraker, contributed to an article entitled “Shall Wheelwomen Wear Bloomers?” in which he proclaimed: “If women want to wear bloomers when riding a bicycle I don’t believe there is much use in objecting. They will do it anyway, so there is no special need of saying anything for or against the costume. . .  Women have a right, within the bounds of reason, to dress as they please, and personally I don’t care what they wear on the wheel.”

Velvet bloomers

Illustration from The Model New Woman: A Study in Bloomers by George F. Hall, 1895

The so-called New Woman got people talking in the 1890s. A lot. All around America —from small towns like Garnett, Kansas, to big cities like New York—newspapers, magazines, books, stories, poems, sermons, and even popular music debated the merits of the New Woman, who rode a bicycle, wore bloomers, and had progressive ideas. Some people applauded her, others were contemptuous, a few were indifferent. She was often ridiculed. But she got people’s attention.

Bicycles were closely associated with the New Woman as a symbol of her freedom, modernity, independence, and athleticism. “New Woman’s Garb: Shall She Wear Bloomers or Retain Her Skirts? Widespread Discussion of and Deep Feelings Aroused by the Innovation,” in the New York Sun, was one of countless articles on the subject that were published around the country in 1895 at the height of the bloomer craze. The author quotes a suffragette, who says that “woman will ride to emancipation and equal freedom with man, full and complete, on a bicycle and in bloomers.”


Samuel D. Ehrhart (American, ca. 1862–1937). The bicycle—the great dress reformer of the nineteenth century! Illustration from Puck, August 7, 1895. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsca-29031

ad detailThe 1897 bicycle tire advertisement in Bartow-Pell’s fall exhibition is for the New Brunswick Tire Company. This New Jersey firm, which was in the rubber business for sixty years before being sold in 1899, was one of a number of companies that ultimately became part of Michelin. In the ad, the words “up to date” appear next to a stylish bloomer-wearing cyclist, who energetically embraces her new wheels and the freedom they provide. Bicycle-related products were extensively advertised at this period and were good sources of advertising revenue.

Bicycle firms would cease to exist, or not exist so profusely, were it not for the fact that the “new woman” can be utilized to advantage in bicycle advertising . . . At any rate, it’s a fact that one-third of every magazine and journal is advertisements, and one-half that is the charming “new woman” astride a bicycle. . . . Bicycles sell well, and I am certain it’s due, largely, to the mode of advertising them. Dr. Caroline Peterson, “The New Woman,” Proceedings of the Iowa Pharmaceutical Association, 1896

American Costume illus

This 1852 illustration from The Water-Cure Journal contrasts the sensible “American Costume” with trousers (left and right) with the tightly corseted, full-skirted, and impractical “French Costume” (center).

Amelia Bloomer from Life & Writings 1895

Amelia Bloomer (1818–1894)

Bloomers, however, were nothing new. Beginning in the 1850s, “Turkish trousers” were sometimes worn under shortened dresses without tight stays as part of the reform-dress movement. In 1851, the outfits caused a public sensation after women’s rights activist Elizabeth Cady Stanton learned about the new style from her cousin. When Stanton’s friend Amelia Bloomer described the costume in her temperance and women’s rights periodical, The Lily, other journalists picked up the story, and the fashion soon took her name. At this time, these unconventional ensembles were worn by progressive, well-to-do women for comfort, health, and practicality and by some women, such as farmers’ wives and pioneers, as work clothes. The bicycling bloomer girl was at least a generation away.

First experience, 1893

Illustration from Demorest’s Monthly Magazine, August 1895

The bloomer-wearing New Woman of the 1890s—whose persona was partly a reaction against the nineteenth-century idea of a woman’s “sphere”—elicited some strong opinions. For example, the New York Sun reported in 1895 that the Reverend T. B. Hawthorne of Atlanta accused women of “riding to the devil in bloomers” and preached that the craze was “born of infidelity.” But the Reverend John W. Shelton of Mason, Ohio, dismissed “the indignant protests of the scandalized anti-bloomerites in his congregation” by supporting the bloomer-attired organist who rode her bike to church in “a very sensible costume.” The reporter also wrote that many women were against bloomers. “Naturally this sentiment is not much evidenced in print, nor in public.” Julia Hemphill, whose essay was published in the 1895 Annual Report of the New York Institution for the Instruction of the Deaf and Dumb, called the New Woman a “fearless” American girl with “a cultured mind and a skillful hand” who was doing “great good” for the country. The author of “Bloomers,” a comic poem in The Opera Glass (1896), teasingly described modern young women from different states and the contents of their bloomer pockets—a flask for Kentucky’s maidens, a pistol for the cycling girl of Texas, a volume of Robert Browning for the bloomer girl of Boston, women’s suffrage speeches for the “daisy belle” of Kansas, and a “tutti-frutti pocket full of gum to mend her tire” for the Manhattan “bloomer damsel.”

gym Mt. Holyoke cropped

Bloomers were often worn by female students for physical education classes, such as this “gymnasium costume” worn by students at Mount Holyoke College in 1893.  The Metropolitan Museum of Art owns some examples of similar gym suits.

Although many people agreed that bloomers were practical and comfortable, the costume was often deemed unattractive. Several prominent people talked about the look in “Shall Wheelwomen Wear Bloomers?”  A journalist, Cynthia M. Westover, called them “homely” and ugly. Miss Florence Dangerfield, a lawyer, disapproved of women being “mannish in appearance” and found bloomers “inartistic.” But not all individuals agreed. Oliver Sumner Teall, “society man, politician, and bon vivant,” said that “a pretty girl in bloomers is charming” and “so very killing”  when “she comes daintily along . . . leading her wheel.” Charles Dana Gibson, on the other hand, was not a fan, and although the Gibson Girl, like the Bloomer girl, was independent and athletic, Gibson’s statuesque beauties almost always wear dresses. A rare exception can be found in a satirical illustration entitled The Coming Game: Yale versus Vassar (1895).

Gibson Yale Vassar

Charles Dana Gibson (1867–1944). The Coming Game: Yale versus Vassar, 1895

Here is a small sampling of more remarks from contemporaries:

She has been defined as—
“A fresh darn in the original blue stocking”
“Man’s newest and best reason for remaining single”
“The New Woman,” Julia A. Hemphill, 1895

The dear new woman! I like her. Perhaps she is crude in her newness. Give her time.
From a Girl’s Point of View, Lilian Bell, 1897

It’s a rather difficult task to say anything original on such a threadbare subject as the “New Woman.” Poor “new woman!” She can be called old by this time. For the past two years, and even longer, she has been before the public. She has figured as the leading and shining light of our comic papers; she has been the favorite theme for the magazine editor to weave his editorials out of. Playwrights have written all sorts of plays wherein “ye new woman” was the leading star. . . . The “new woman” is a fake. She does not exist in flesh and blood; it’s only on paper you find her.
“The New Woman,” Dr. Caroline Peterson, 1896

Whether or not the New Woman of the 1890s really existed “in flesh and blood,” she can currently be found “on paper” at Bartow-Pell.

Margaret Highland, Exhibition Curator


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One Thousand “Girls” and the “Indestructible” Crinoline: W. S. and C. H. Thomson’s Skirt Manufactory

This post discusses an 1859 engraving of W. S. and C. H. Thomson’s Skirt Manufactory in Bartow-Pell’s fall exhibition, The “Quiet Circle”: Women and Girls in 19th-Century America, on view until November 19.

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W. S. & C. H. Thomson’s Skirt Manufactory. Wood-engraved illustration from Harper’s Weekly, February 19, 1859

The Indestructible SkirtThe year is 1859, and an extreme clothing trend is gripping the Western world—the hoop skirt, otherwise known as the cage crinoline or skeleton skirt. Meanwhile, a female-managed hoop-skirt factory in New York City employs one thousand women and girls, creating a happy partnership of social reform and fashion fad.

In 1859, Harper’s Weekly, a mainstream periodical with a large circulation, published a series of articles about the “employment of women,” including illustrated pieces on Thomson’s Crown-Skirt Factory and its competitor Douglas & Sherwood. GirlThe Harper’s wood engraving in Bartow-Pell’s exhibition depicts the Thomson factory floor teeming with industrious, well-dressed, and attractive young women working at various stages of hoop-skirt production. Women supervisors preside over this idealized scene. A young girl (identified by her shorter skirt) appears to be employed as a runner and hands a bolt of cloth to another worker. Bold letters at the front of the room spell out “Strive to Excel,” a popular inspirational phrase. The artist has not forgotten to add a bit of advertising for Thomson’s products near the title and has included the words “Patent Indestructable” [sic].

Hoop unknown maker 1862

Unknown maker. Cage crinoline, American, 1862. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. William R. Witherell, 1953 C.I.53.72.13. Thomson hoops are in the collections of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Musée des Arts Décoratifs in Paris.

Skirts became wider in the 1850s. For a while, women wore multiple layers of petticoats in order to achieve the desirable silhouette, as they had in the 1840s. Some petticoats were even made with horsehair (or “crin” in French), which provided support and bulk but was heavy and stiff. According to Harper’s Weekly in January 1859, “the weight of several such skirts, and the heat generated proving injurious to health, the attention of makers was directed toward the discovery of a substitute, and hoop skirts were invented.” Lightweight steel hoops allowed women to be fashionable but more comfortable. They were also an improvement over their historical precedent, the eighteenth-century pannier.

In House and Home Papers (1865), Harriet Beecher Stowe put it like this:

Look at the hoop-skirt factories—women wanted hoop-skirts—would have them or die—and forthwith factories arose, and hoop-skirts became as the dust of the earth for abundance.

“Yes,” said Miss Featherstone, “and to say the truth, the American hoop-skirts are the only ones fit to wear. When we were living on the Champs Elysées, I remember we searched high and low for something like them, and finally had to send home to America for some.”


Dress, American, 1860–65. Silk and mother-of-pearl. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mary Pierrepont Beckwith, 1969 C.I.69.33.4a–d. After 1860, skirts became flatter at the front with the volume towards the back, and crinoline designs followed suit.

The W. S. and C. H. Thomson Skirt Factory was one of the largest manufacturers of hoop skirts in the world. William Sparks Thomson and his brother Charles Henry founded their eponymous manufacturing company in 1856, and Charles H. Langdon joined the partnership in 1858. The factory was located in New York on Broadway, and it originally produced cloaks and mantillas (shawls). But after the steel-hooped cage crinoline appeared in France in 1856, W. S. Thomson shrewdly jumped on board. In 1858, he patented the “eyelet fastening,” an H-shaped washer that was used with an eyelet to secure the crinoline’s steel hoops to its fabric straps. Thomson claimed that this innovation made the hoop “indestructible.” In 1859, the factory is said to have produced three to four thousand hoops a day and used 300,000 yards of steel and 150,000 yards of tape per week.

The Thomson company was a progressive supporter of working women. According to “Employment of Women: Thomson’s Crown-Skirt Factory,” published in Harper’s Weekly in February 1859: “The whole establishment is under the superintendence of a woman, who from the first has exercised control over the employment of hands, the arrangement of work, and the remuneration paid. Even the accountants of the factory are women.” The article also explains that the factory employed an average of one thousand “girls,” who had mostly “been taken from the ranks of plain sewers, and educated to the hoop skirt manufacture.”

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“Only to think, Julia dear, that our Mothers wore such ridiculous fashions as these! Ha! ha! ha! ha!,” 1857. Courtesy of the New York Public Library

Although the cage crinoline, with its oversized proportions, was often the subject of ridicule, the Harper’s Weekly author points out its value to society: “The revilers of the hoop will thus perceive that it is, after all, an institution not wholly useless, inasmuch as in this establishment alone it feeds, clothes, and warms over one thousand females, many of whom have children or aged persons depending on them.” In addition, the “Messrs. Thomson, we understand, contemplate the establishment of a library for their employees, and likewise propose to have a competent lecturer give, in one of the great halls of their establishment, a course of free lectures to the girls and their friends.” The practice of providing continuing education and self-improvement for female factory workers had a precedent in the textile mills at Lowell, Massachusetts.

April 19, 1962

Emile Bourdelin. La Jupe Américaine Thomson. Illustration from Le Monde Illustré, April 19, 1862. This engraving depicts Thomson’s factories in Paris (St. Denis), London, New York, and Saxony (Germany).

1860 Eng ad Cornhill vol. 5Thomson’s business was so successful that the company opened factories in London, Paris, Brussels, and present-day Germany, where the firm exuberantly touted its American-designed products. The Paris factory was located on the outskirts of the city in St. Denis. Emile Bourdelin, writing in Le Monde Illustré in 1862, describes “la jupe-cage Américaine Thomson” as “une véritable révolution,” which was high praise coming from the fashionable French. The American-run establishment offered training by female supervisors and boasted machinery that even “jeunes filles” could easily operate. The author opines that Messrs. Thomson “ont ainsi contribué à améliorer la position de la classe ouvrière femme, si peu favorisée jusqu’ici.” In other words, Thomson improved the lives of working-class women by offering them good jobs at a decent wage. American ingenuity was helping women at home and abroad.


A Work-Room in Douglas & Sherwood’s Skirt Manufactory. Wood-engraved illustration from Harper’s Weekly, January 29, 1859

Thomson was not the only successful American hoop-manufacturing company. A History of American Manufactures (1864) claimed “it is estimated that as many as sixty thousand of the various sizes are made each day during eight months of the year” by Thomson and its competitors, such as Douglas & Sherwood, a New York firm that also employed women and provided them with educational resources (namely, a 2,000-volume library).


Hoop, American, ca. 1860. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mary Means Huber. This hoop is currently on view at Bartow-Pell in Clarina’s bedchamber.

An 1863 advertisement in a British magazine listed a variety of reasons why women should buy prize-winning Thomson crinolines. They were “capital for preserving the dress, just suited for morning dress, superior for the promenade, easily compressible for the carriage, highly recommended for the home circle, and admirable for parties.” In addition, they were “better than medicine for health,” did not “cause accidents,” were “never in cases of fire,” did not “appear at inquests,” and provided “health, happiness, and beauty for children.” This savvy marketing ticked a lot of boxes for the nineteenth-century woman—propriety, economy, fashion, health and safety, family, children.

Godey April 1863

The styles featured in Godey’s Fashions for April 1863 relied on cage crinolines to support voluminous skirts.

The hoop skirt only lasted for about ten years and began to go out of style in the late 1860s. It was supplanted by the bustle in the 1870s. During its heyday, the crinoline had some problems. A rare but serious hazard was fire. In 1861, Godey’s Lady’s Book published “An Article which all Ladies ought to Read.” It described the agonizing death of a London woman who reached for an envelope and caught her sleeve on fire by brushing against a candle. “She had on one of those crinolines made of steel hoops,” where the fire quickly spread. “If it had not been for the crinoline, too, her life might have been saved.” The coroner “thought that she was another victim of the prevailing costume among ladies.” On a purely practical level, cage crinolines were often inconveniently wide, in addition to being rigid. Accordingly, many cartoonists made fun of them.


New Contrivance for Lady’s Maids, Adapted to the Present Style of Fashions, 1857. Courtesy of the New York Public Library

When fashions changed, what happened to hoop-skirt factories and the jobs they provided? Thomson’s company, for example, had another success story with its popular patented glove-fitting corset. And, as is well known, the women’s garment industry has continued to evolve and flourish. To use Thomson’s word, fashion is “indestructible.”

Margaret Highland, Exhibition Curator


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Neoclassical Darlings: Two Watercolors after Adam Buck


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Unknown artist (British). The Darling Awake (detail), ca. 1809–30. After a color stipple engraving by Samuel Freeman (British, 1773–1857), after an original work by Adam Buck (Anglo-Irish, 1759–1833). Watercolor on paper. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum 2006.05

Americans love British imports—the Beatles, tea and scones, Noel Coward, Downton Abbey, James Bond, Hunter wellies. The list is endless. And it was the same in the nineteenth century, when the Brit invasion included Charles Dickens, Staffordshire ceramics, Argand lamps, the poetry of Lord Byron, and Ackermann’s Repository of Arts.


Augustus Charles Pugin (British, born France, 1769–1832). Ackermann’s Room in the Strand, 1809. Hand-colored etching with aquatint. Victoria and Albert Museum, Given by Miss E. Manson. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Rudolph Ackermann (1764–1834) was a Regency publisher and print seller. From 1809 to 1828, he published Ackermann’s Repository, a highbrow British magazine that featured the newest fashions, arts, literature, politics, and more. This monthly periodical was also available in the United States, where cultured New Yorkers could buy an annual subscription for £4 12s with free postage, and Bostonians could peruse issues at the Atheneum. Ackermann was also the proprietor of a fashionable London shop on the Strand, the Repository of Arts, which sold prints, books, fancy goods, and art supplies. Americans traveling and living abroad could easily visit this elegant emporium to purchase Ackermann’s stylish merchandise.


Adam Buck. The Artist and His Family, 1813. Watercolor, pen, and ink on paper mounted on board. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. The background objects in this family portrait announce the artist’s passion for ancient Greek vase paintings and their influence on his compositions.


Tea saucer, ca. 1812–1830s. British. Bat-printed transferware. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum. Teaware with Adam Buck’s maternal scenes was sold in Britain and also exported to the American market.

One of the best-known artists whose work Ackermann published and promoted through engravings was the Irish-born portraitist and watercolorist Adam Buck (1759–1833). Like many people of his era, Buck was a keen enthusiast of the Antique at a time when interest in new archaeological discoveries merged with a reaction against extravagant and fussy Baroque design. Buck also collected and studied ancient Greek vase paintings, and their inspiration infuses his work, which includes clean lines, figures in profile, Grecian props, and classical drapery. His “modern” depictions of idealized mothers and children in the classical taste strongly appealed to the market’s craving for contemporary interpretations of antiquity, and Buck’s compositions were widely reproduced in prints and on transferware ceramics.


Aaron Willard (American, 1757–1844). Mantel clock, 1817. Mahogany, pine, églomisé glass, and brass. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Mrs. Mary D.B. Wilson in memory of Charles H. Wilson of Hingham. This Boston clock was made by Aaron Willard, a member of the well-known Massachusetts clock-making family. The base features a version of Adam Buck’s The Darling Asleep surrounded by a gilt-stenciled border.

Bartow-Pell owns two fine watercolors after Adam Buck—The Darling Asleep and The Darling Awake. These companion pieces hang in the Lannuier bedchamber. They may have been executed by an accomplished amateur artist or perhaps even by a teenaged schoolgirl. The watercolors are copies of color stipple engravings of Buck’s paintings by the London artist Samuel Freeman (1773–1857) that were published by Ackermann in 1809. In both, a besotted mother in a white neoclassical gown and curled hair worn in the latest style gazes upon her “darling.” The figures in The Darling Awake mimic those in other Adam Buck works—I Will Have a Kiss (1800) and The Artist and His Family (1813). The klismos chair and footstool are in the highly fashionable classical style that was popularized by designers such as Buck’s contemporary Thomas Hope (1769–1831). The first quarter of the nineteenth century was also a great age for poetry, and each scene includes some sentimental verse. Although the pictures appear sweetly romantic to our eyes, a viewer in 1809 would have seen these as refined emblems of modern design.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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