Sugarplum Fantasy: Visions of Candy Long Ago

A cotton-candy fantasy in the Lannuier bedchamber features this dramatic tree.

Lemon drops, cardamom comfits, coconut creams, almond taffy, chocolate cream drops, sugared almonds, violet drops, and rose drops offer just a small taste of the sugary confections that have enchanted past generations of candy lovers and inspired professional candy makers and home cooks; manufacturers, shopkeepers and consumers; cookbook authors, fantasy writers, and moralists; and holiday gift givers.

“There are fashions in candy,” explains the author of The Candy-Maker (1878). “Ten years ago, taffey [sic] cut up into various shapes, and variously flavored, was the favorite. Then gum drops couldn’t be made fast enough to meet the call. Dealers began putting brandy and cordials into them, and with that the demand fell off, and the gum drop furore was killed.” Trendy New York women joined a craze for cream-stuffed dates, and then “fig-paste had a run of about two years.” “The most profitable trade is in fancy candies in ornamental boxes, on a fashionable thoroughfare.”

Left: Trade card. Bailey’s Fine Candies, Boston, 1875–1900. Library of Congress
Right: Trade card. Henry Maillard Chocolates and Confections, New York, ca. 1876–90. From The New York Public Library

Confectioners offered a variety of sweets, including ice cream and candy. Some of these establishments were elegantly appointed. In 1899, according to the Confectioners’ and Bakers’ Gazette, there was “an abundance” of “confectionery stores and bake shops” on Eighth Avenue between Columbus Circle and 14th Street (which was on a major trolley line). Although “there is a sameness about them,” “here and there a store stands out as distinctive.” Mr. Fajens’s confectionery was between 57th and 58th Streets. “His store is one of the best on the avenue. The fixtures are of cherry, handsomely carved, and backed with mirrors. At the right is a large Tuft soda fountain. It is of marble and onyx and has 18 draughts. Ice cream soda is the popular tipple. . . . On the left is the candy counter. It is of unusual height and has a glass front.” Palm trees surrounded tables at the back. Revolving fans kept customers cool in the summer, and electric lights illuminated the delightful scene. “I saw here all the popular makes of confectionery, which shows that Mr. Fajens is a wideawake merchant,” the reporter writes.

A colorful collection of Pez dispensers and candies make cheerful ornaments for George Bartow’s bedchamber.

On the other hand, penny candy shops—which catered to children—responded to a ready market of juvenile spenders with their own coins to spend. “A good trade in less expensive varieties can usually be had by locating in the neighborhood of a school,” The CandyMaker unabashedly advises its readers. And this was often the case. “On their way to school, they had to pass a candy-store, the window of which was gay with glass jars of bright-colored sugar-plums and candy baskets filled with mottoes, and all sorts of animals and figures made in white sugar and highly colored. This store was a great resort of all the children who went to Miss Porter’s school. To Jack it was a never-ending temptation. He would begin to jingle the pennies in his pocket as soon as he came in sight of it, and sometimes he had even coaxed Rosy to spend her pennies too, in buying candy cigars or dogs, though he knew she was saving her money for a wax doll.” (“Jack and Rosy,” Demorest’s Young America, January 1869)

It seems that many children had pennies for candy, even ones in low-income neighborhoods and those on their way to Sunday school. “We had a count made once of the amount taken in penny purchases of gum, candy, and ice-cream in seven candy stores, in a very poor district in New York City, each week, and we found that it amounted to one hundred and seventy-five dollars a week. Nearby there was a large Sunday school,” A. F. Schauffler wrote in 1895 in Ways of Working. The anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock (1844–1915) called such stores “devil traps” in Traps for the Young (1883). “These traps may be discovered in confectionery stores which keep open on Sunday.” “Any person who has observed these matters must have been struck with the numbers of little ones who throng into candy stores before and while going to Sunday-school. . . . The pennies placed in the tiny hand of the child for the missionary or other good cause, are thus easily secured, and the child, with its back toward home, says, ‘Nobody will know,’ and tempted by the delicious flavors so sweet to the taste, dishonesty is encouraged and swiftly follows.” This moralistic finger wagging, however, did not deter most children from enjoying their penny treats.

Illustration from “The Candy Country,” written by Louisa May Alcott. St. Nicholas: An Illustrated Magazine for Young Folks, November 1885. “For some time, Lilly was quite happy in going about, tasting the many different kinds of sweets, talking to the little people, who were very amiable, and finding out curious things about them and their country.”

Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888) is among the authors who have used the fanciful realm of candy not only to appeal to children’s imaginations but also to serve as an alluring didactic tool. In “The Candy Country” (St. Nicholas Magazine, November 1885), the author of Little Women tells the story of a schoolgirl and her adventures in a fantastical land where—like Dorothy in the Land of Oz—she learns some important life lessons. This is the tale of Lilly, who borrows her mother’s “red sun-umbrella” and is blown away “like a thistle-down, right up in the air.” After a crash landing in a faraway place, she is thrilled to find a fairy-tale world made entirely of candy with chocolate rocks, candy fruits and flowers, jujube streets, “dainty candy people,” and sugar birds singing in candy trees. “Lilly discovered that it never rained, but that it white-sugared. There was no sun, as it would have been too hot; but a large yellow lozenge made a nice moon, and there were red and white comfits for stars.” “A fine palace of white cream candy, with pillars of striped peppermint-stick,” had “a roof of frosting that made it look like Milan Cathedral.” Inside the “pretty rooms, . . . all the chairs and tables were of every colored candy, and the beds of spun sugar. A fountain of lemonade supplied drink,” and the floors were made of ice cream. But Lilly finally realizes that there can be too much of a good thing, and she makes her way to the “happy Land of Bread.” Here, she has “the best bread and milk that she has ever tasted,” but like Dorothy in Oz, she longs for home. “Just take the bread in your hands and wish three times,” her bready friend Sally Lunn tells her. Lilly never forgot what she learned in Candy Country and grew “into a fine, strong, healthy woman, because she ate very little cake and candy, except at Christmas-time, when the oldest and the wisest of us like to make a short visit to Candy-land.”

Candy canes and peppermints adorn this festive tree in Bartow-Pell’s carriage house.

Candy was more than just fun; some people used it for medicinal purposes. One of the most well-known “cough candies” was—and still is—made from the horehound (or hoarhound) plant, an aromatic perennial in the mint family. Charles F. Heilge of Boston was one of many 19th-century candy makers who sold sweets with healing properties, such as honey rock candy and Iceland Moss and Flax Seed Candies, a confection for soothing bronchial irritation. In 1880, Dr. A. W. Chase published Dr. Chase’s Recipes, or Information for Everyone, in which physicians, pharmacists, and “families generally” could find his recipes for cough drops and lozenges. Sugar, molasses, honey, and licorice sweetened these concoctions and helped to mask stronger ingredients like castile soap, laudanum, spirits of turpentine, and extract of opium.

Joseph Ferdinand Keppler (1838–1894). “Our Mutual Friend.” Cover illustration from Puck, January 7, 1885. Chromolithograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. In this commentary on unhealthy ingredients in some store-bought sweets, a sexton and a doctor flank a large multi-colored candy cane labeled with the names of poisonous dyes such as arsenic, red lead, verdigris, and chrome green (as well as additives like chalk and glucose). The men stand in front of a confectionery selling “all kinds of candy” as children gaze into the shop window behind them.

Candy makers were well aware that consumers worried about impure or harmful ingredients. “Many of the lozenges sold in trains are little more than sweetened and flavored starch. It would be well if this were the only adulteration,” The Candy-Maker warned in 1878, “but conscienceless manufacturers add china clay, called terra alba, or white earth, plaster of Paris, etc.” Even more alarming was the use of poisonous dyes. “Some of the poisons used either in the manufacture of the candies or to color them, were the following: red-lead, chrome-green, Prussian blue, burnt umber, vermillion and fuchsine,” reported a scientific study of New York City candies that was published in The Therapeutic Gazette in February 1885. Mothers, in particular, were concerned about the threat of injurious ingredients. Purity and freshness were prized, and if possible, retail confectioners were advised to make at least some of their candy within public view. In addition to reassuring customers about the quality of the ingredients, this was also a good way to attract business from curious passersby who wanted to see how candy was made.

Illustration from trademark registration by P. Wunderle for Common Sense: The Best Confectionery, Philadelphia, 1887. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. “People who eat Candies are generally willing to pay a few cents more for pure, wholesome goods of the best eating qualities than for inferior grades of goods.”

“It is now quite the thing to make candy at home,” Mrs. Frances Owens wrote in her 1884 cookbook. “The home-made is much more wholesome for the little folks than the cheap, highly-colored confectionery retailed so largely. Candy-making is a pleasant pastime for children, and they will become quite expert at it in a surprisingly short time.” Some popular homemade favorites were old-fashioned molasses candy, taffy, butterscotch, caramels, and cream candies.

Illustration from “Candy-Making.” Our Young Folks, May 1869. ‘‘‘This is cool enough for pulling, now,’ said the [candy] artist, gathering up the lump of peppermint candy in his hands, and suddenly throwing it over a great hook set in a stone post beside the table. Then, before it had time to cling or drop, he pulled it toward him in a great shining band.”

Candy pulls—also called “candy frolics”—turned candy making into a party, especially for young people. “Who has not taken part of a taffy-pull?,” the Ladies’ Home Journal asked in October 1891. “How the jokes go round, and merry laughter resounds as hands, smothered in flour or butter, seize the shining brown mass and pull it with infinite patience until the taffy takes on cream-white color. Our parents derived much pleasure from the taffy-pull. It is one of the recognized institutions of the country.” For “excellent taffy,” the author suggests boiling a quart of molasses and half a pound of butter for about half an hour, then adding half a teacup of vinegar and letting the mass cool for pulling.   

Santa Claus Sugar Plums label, U.S. Confection Co., New York, ca. 1868. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Historically, sugarplums were sugar-coated seeds or nuts (comfits or dragées). In 1830, Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language defined sugarplums as “a species of sweetmeat, in small balls,” and a sweetmeat as “fruit preserved with sugar.” But by 1875, a few years after this label was printed, Webster’s had changed the definition of “sugar-plum” to “a species of candy made up in small flattened balls or disks.”

“Whatever treasure the Christmas stocking may contain, the child’s stocking that holds no sugar-plums will be empty indeed,” Mrs. Henry Brown observes in “Sugar-Plums” (The Cosmopolitan, December 1886). She advises making candies at home, not just as a fun family holiday activity and to save money, but to ensure that the sweets are as “pure and wholesome as possible.” (Mrs. Brown uses “sugar-plums” loosely to mean candies in general.) Homemade treats, which were sometimes presented as festive Yuletide gifts, could be arranged in pretty packaging. In “Christmas Candy,” (Good Housekeeping, December 1897), Grace Clark suggests placing sweets in pasteboard boxes “covered with crepe tissue paper and tied with gold bullion cord.”

Who doesn’t love to sample a luscious piece of candy? And from Clement Moore’s visions of sugarplums to the Land of Sweets in Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker to Shirley Temple’s Good Ship Lollipop to the Gumdrop Mountains of Candy Land to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, the magic of candy has inspired our imaginations . . . and probably always will.

Margaret Highland, BPMM Historian

Visit Bartow-Pell this month for Home Sweet Holidays and enjoy beautiful candy-coated trees throughout the mansion and in the carriage house. 

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Soap, Optional (and What Is Shampoo?): The Sometimes-Surprising Bathing Habits of Americans in the Past

Basin and pitcher. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Leland S. Hanson, 2003

We’ve all seen the period films (or heard the spiel in historic houses) that depict cozy fireside baths in a tub filled with warm water by an obliging servant. But is that the whole story? And how did people’s bathing habits and attitudes really differ from those of today?

Mary Cassatt. The Bath (The Tub), 1891. Color drypoint, soft ground etching, and aquatint. Library of Congress

Personal cleanliness was increasingly important in the 19th century and is frequently discussed in period guides to health, beauty, etiquette, and domestic economy. Of course, not everyone read these books—which were mostly written for the middle and upper-middle classes—and not all people followed the rules. But, in any case, the 19th century was unquestionably an age with new standards of hygiene. In The Habits of Good Society (1865), the author derisively describes the previous century: “Our great-grandmothers were not rigid in points of personal cleanliness. . . . There were those amongst them who boasted that they . . . had only passed a cambric handkerchief over the delicate brow and cheeks, wetted with elderflower water or rose water.”

Nineteenth-century advice books pay close attention to the skin as an organ of the human body, and readers are constantly reminded that removing oil, perspiration, and dirt is a key to good health. Some writers even describe unclean skin as downright dangerous. “The insensible perspiration, or animal effluvia, when it . . . is fixed and concentrated upon the skin, becomes an energetic poison, and acts upon the system as such,” warns Mrs. Farrar in The Young Lady’s Friend (1849), “. . . hence the danger to the health from want of cleanliness.”

What is missing in these early assessments of cleanliness? Germs. But the work of Louis Pasteur (1822–1895) and other scientists would revolutionize microbiology by the end of the 19th century, which allowed the importance of hygiene to become better understood. (Even then, some people challenged “germ theory,” calling it a “craze” and a “fad.”)

Cleanliness was not just about health. We have all heard the maxim “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” from a sermon by the great English cleric John Wesley (1703–1791), and this precept was often reinforced in 19th-century Christian teachings. Just as cleanliness was linked to religion, it was also associated with moral purity. “Neither physical or moral beauty can exist without cleanliness, which indicates self-respect, and is the root of many virtues, especially those of purity, modesty, delicacy, and decency,” declares Julia M. Dewey in Lessons on Morals, a guide for schools published in 1899.

Chemise, 1830s; Shirt, 1870s; Drawers, 1860–68. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. “A frequent change of linen is another essential of cleanliness. It avails little to wash the body if we inclose [sic] it the next minute in soiled garments. It is not in the power of every one to wear fine and elegant clothes, but we can all, under ordinary circumstances, afford clean shirts, drawers, and stockings.” (How to Behave, New York, 1857)

Then as now, social norms and propriety were also reasons for good hygiene. “Those who aspire to be gentlemen and ladies” must be clean in “person and dress,” writes Alexander M. Gow in Good Morals and Gentle Manners for Schools and Families (1873). And, needless to say, unpleasant smells from a lack of bathing as well as the use of strong fragrances must be avoided. “True politeness would suggest that we shall not be perfumed with cologne or musk, onions or tobacco, the odors of the hen-house or the barn.”

Edgar Degas (French, 1834–1917). Woman Bathing in a Shallow Tub, 1885. Charcoal and pastel on light green wove paper, now discolored to warm gray, laid down on silk bolting. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, H. O. Havemeyer Collection, Bequest of Mrs. H. O. Havemeyer, 1929. In The Lady’s Annual Register for 1838, Caroline Gilman discusses how to bathe: “You may have a shallow vessel like a large baking pan, if you choose, to stand in.”

How did people clean their bodies in the past? Sponge baths were a common choice. These could occur in a portable tub, such as the type consisting “of a large flat metal basin, some four feet in diameter.” (The Habits of Good Society) “A large coarse sponge. . . and a few Turkish towels” complete the necessary supplies. But not everyone had—or used—a tub. In 1849, Mrs. Farrar advised: “If you cannot command the use of a tub or a tin wash-pan, the whole surface of your body may be gone over with one large wash-bowl full of water, and by practice you will become so expert as not to make any slop on the carpet.”

Mary Cassatt (American, 1844–1926). Woman Bathing, ca. 1891. Drypoint, aquatint, and soft-ground etching in color. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Gift of William Emerson and The Hayden Collection—Charles Henry Hayden Fund,

“For persons of really robust constitutions, a cold shower-bath may be recommended,” writes Sarah Annie Frost in Laws and By-Laws of American Society (1869). But what exactly was a “shower-bath”? An article published in 1879, “Benefits of the Shower Bath,” provides a description: “A bucket of cold water (or tepid if the shock is too great) poured over the head, is the simplest form of shower bath, and as good as any. But it is not the most convenient.” However, manufactured shower-baths were available. “We happen to have a handsome one . . . made of polished walnut, with gilded weights, and the inside lined with zinc at the bottom.”

Shower-bath. Illustration from An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy by Thomas Webster and Mrs. Parkes, London, 1844 (American edition, 1848). “The water is forced up into a cistern, a, with a perforated bottom by a syringe, b, and the bather, by pulling a string, opens a valve, which causes the water to descend suddenly in a shower on his head and body through the perforated bottom. . . . The whole is made of tin-plate painted, one of the upright supports being hollow to allow the ascent of the water.” Shower-baths were believed to be therapeutic and were sometimes suggested for people in ill health. (Alternatively, an extreme version was used as a punishment in prisons.)
Plunge bath, 1840–80. National Museum of American History, Gift of Kenneth E. Jewett. The plunge bath, like the shower-bath, was an immersive bathing experience. This one is made of tin, which was a common material for bath tubs.

Warm or cold? Everyone in the 19th century, it seems, had an opinion on the best water temperature for bathing. The New American Cyclopaedia (1863) is one of many sources that promotes washing in cold water for people with a “vigorous constitution.” “The effects of the cold bath, where it agrees, are tonic and bracing; it stimulates the skin, improves the appetite, and renders the circulation more active and vigorous. It hardens the system . . . against the liability to take cold.” As for warm baths, the Cyclopaedia cautions that “its frequent use tends to . . . debilitate.” Not everyone agreed, including Mrs. Farrar, who says the opposite: “Warm bathing is highly useful to the health, and if properly indulged in, has no debilitating effect.” She does, however, recommend cold baths for certain people under the right circumstances. “By washing a small part of the person at a time, rubbing it well, and then covering up what is done, the whole may be washed in cold water, even in winter time, and a glow may be produced after it in a young and healthy person.” Cold baths were seen as invigorating, but warm baths—in addition to being soothing—were deemed the best way to get clean.

Thomas Rowlandson (British, 1757–1827). Salt Water and Fresh Water, March 25, 1800. Published by Rudolph Ackermann, London (active 1794–1829). Hand-colored etching and aquatint. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1959. This satirical print depicts two kinds of bathing. At the top, a woman enters the sea from a bathing machine. Salt-water bathing was seen as refreshing and invigorating, as well as excellent for the health. In the bottom scene, a woman pours heated water over a man in a tub while another one scrubs him with a flesh brush. A decanter and wine glass on the floor remind us of what some people saw as the “debilitating” effects of the warm bath. At any rate, both bathers struggle with their gleeful attendants.

Friction was a vital part of the cleansing process because it can remove dead skin. In the 19th century, this meant exfoliation with sponges and the vigorous use of towels and brushes. In The Lady’s Guide to Perfect Gentility (1856), Emily Thornhill says to “let the body be thoroughly dried with a soft towel, and rubbed with a soft flesh brush, or gently with horsehair gloves; the latter, at first, will not be very pleasant, but in a short time becomes a luxury.” Mrs. Walker describes the flesh brush in Female Beauty (1840): “This is a brush with long silky hairs sufficiently soft not to hurt the skin, and at the same time sufficiently elastic to remove all those little scaly pellicles which the water has raised.” In Health at Home (1875), Dr. W. W. Hall says that “friction should not be spared.” Bathers should lay “the towel flat on the hand, keeping the mouth closed, then rub with a will nearly as hard as the hand can press.” Popular choices were Turkish towels—made of cotton with a looped pile—and huckabacks—a woven linen and/or cotton towel with a textured surface.

Advertisement for a “sitting bath,” “improved bathing pan,” and other articles sold by Waterman’s Kitchen Furnishing Rooms in Boston. Sketch of the Lives of Taylor and Fillmore [1848?]. “All the essentials of a well appointed kitchen will be found at this establishment,” the ad promises. Along with broilers, refrigerators, and kitchen gadgets, this store offers bathing items that “far surpass all others for daily ablution.”

Was the use of soap optional? For a long time, it was. But, why? Soap—which people used for laundry and household cleaning—was harsh on skin. In 1828, Dr. Richard Reese warned in his medical guide: “Some practitioners have attributed a variety of inflammatory and irritative diseases of the skin to the use of soap, with its caustic alcali.” Over fifty years later, Dr. H. Newell Martin of Johns Hopkins University still had the same view, writing in The Human Body (1884): “Nearly all soaps contain so much potash or soda that lathers made from them are really weak ‘lye.’ . . . Probably as many skin-diseases have been caused by too free use of soap, as by uncleanliness.” And even when milder toilet soap was available for use on the skin, plain water was usually considered just fine for bathing. If people did lather up, they often preferred “white soap”—which the New Family Encyclopedia (1833) tells us was made of “olive oil and soda, or with tallow and soda.” Ladies and gentlemen could also indulge in toilet soap perfumed with fragrant essences such as rose, bergamot, cloves, vanilla, and musk. By mid-century, bath soap was on the rise, and in 1849, Mrs. Farrar reassuringly wrote: “Some persons avoid the use of soap as pernicious to the skin; but good white soap, in moderate quantity, and with soft water, can never do any harm to a healthy skin.” In 1876, The Popular Health Almanac further reflects evolving opinions on soap and hygiene: “In washing and bathing, if for no other than sanitary reasons, the use of soap cannot be too much recommended.”

Advertisements from the 1890s for Cuticura and Ivory show that bar soaps were sometimes used for washing the hair.

Washing the hair with soap (or what we call “shampoo”) was not a common practice until the late 19th century. In fact, “shampoo” used to have nothing to do with clean hair. The outdated definition is “massage,” and in 1867, Webster’s dictionary still defined it as such: “To rub and percuss the whole surface of the body . . . in connection with the hot bath.” By 1875, however, Webster had expanded the meaning to include washing the head with soap. So how did people clean their hair and scalp? For ladies, it involved a great deal of brushing, and the secret, according to Sarah Annie Frost in 1869, was “a clean hair-brush.” “Brush the hair carefully both at night and morning,” she says. “Let it be occasionally cleansed with yolk of egg beaten up, or a mixture of glycerine [sic] and lime-juice.” Indeed, eggs were commonly recommended for cleaning the hair. Nevertheless, frequent hair washing was not advised, even late in the century. “Too frequent shampooing of the hair is detrimental,” Godey’s cautions in 1896. Except in very warm weather, the hair should not be washed “thoroughly more than once a month; a sponge, wet in tepid water, rubbed on the scalp every morning, will be sufficient to keep it clean.”

Bath Room Interior. Illustration from Catalogue “G”: Illustrating the Plumbing and Sanitary Department of the J. L. Mott Iron Works, New York, 1888. This “very artistically designed Bath Room” from 1888 features luxurious state-of-the art plumbing fixtures and fine wood cabinetry.

How often did people bathe? Many experts agreed that some form of daily bathing was imperative. In 1851, J. Bradford Sax was adamant on the subject in The Organic Laws: “We now presume the necessity of daily washing or bathing the whole surface of the body, in order to remove the waste material . . . daily deposited thereon. . . . Soap should be used occasionally. . . . Some go for months and years without ever washing more than their hands and face. No terms are strong enough properly to reprobate the filthy practice. I would almost as soon go to the breakfast table without washing my face, as I would without my morning bath. . . . Strange that civilized beings can neglect it!”

Interior of a Swimming Bath. Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, August 20, 1870. In the summer of 1870, new “swimming baths” opened for the poor in New York City. This one, “at the foot of Charles Street . . . contains 68 rooms, the water is four and a half feet deep, and 200 bathers can be accommodated at one time. . . . Such institutions are not only beneficial to the poor, who are unable to leave the hot and sweltering city during the summer, but to the whole community, as all are equally interested in preserving the health of our population.” About a month earlier, on July 1, 1870, the New York Herald published “The Washed Democracy.” “The first public baths established in this city were opened yesterday . . . at the foot of Fifth street, East river, and at the foot of Thirteenth street,” promising “prospects of metropolitan cleanliness.”
Anthony Imbert (1794 or 1795–1834), lithographer. Facade of Arcade Bath, New York City, 1830s. Library of Congress. The Arcade Bath, which offered warm, cold, shower, and vapor baths in marble and tin tubs, was a lavish bathing facility for well-to-do New Yorkers at 39 Chambers Street. In 1836, an advertisement in Longworth’s City Directory announced: “This establishment has recently undergone a thorough improvement.” “The whole arrangement of the Bath is tasteful, rich, and convenient, and is said to bear a favorable comparison with the best establishments of the kind in Europe. . . . The interior gives about 80 rooms for bathing, and connected with the ladies’ bathing-apartments (which are entirely distinct from those for gentlemen) is a neatly furnished parlor for their accommodation.”

Finally, where did people bathe? Ablutions were often performed in the privacy of bedchambers, which were furnished with a washstand, basin, and pitcher and could also accommodate a portable tub. “Where two or three occupy the same room, without any dressing-room, or closet, large enough to wash in, it is impossible for the toilet to be properly made,” Mrs. Farrar writes. In that case, she proposes options such as bathing “when the eyes of younger sisters are closed in sleep.” Occasionally, baths took place in the kitchen, where water could be easily heated and tubs might be stored. And let’s not forget that indoor plumbing and modern bathrooms made bathing easy for the lucky few, especially in the second half of the 19th century. Public baths were also an option.

Today, a stroll through the personal-care aisles of a big-box store shows just how much times have changed. Soap and shampoo? Yes, please!

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Pretty and Cool: A White Summer Dress, ca. 1895

Eyelet lace dress, ca. 1895 (detail). Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mrs. Alexander Rogers, TC2012.07a–c
Bartow-Pell’s ensemble has a separate skirt and a choice of two bodices.

Pretty white summer dresses were everywhere in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They were lightweight and cool, and everyone looked fabulous in them, whatever the occasion. No wonder these gowns were so popular.

In August 1897, a fashion writer counseled the wives of railroad men as follows: “The white dress is indeed the prettiest and most useful of all Summer frocks. It serves as an afternoon street costume, may be worn to a lawn fete in the evening, and with a little lace and ribbon decoration may be worn to Summer opera. Moreover, it is always charming as a house dress for small receptions.” According to Demorest’s Family Magazine in June 1890, “The simple hem-stitched white lawns with deep embroideries make pretty summer dresses for all-day wear, and a flat, wide sash of ribbon is all they need to make them quite dressy.”

Lace is the subject of “Mrs. Ralston’s Chat About Summer Clothes” in the May 1903 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal. “The plain white gowns of Swiss, organdy, and, in fact, all of the thin white summer materials, are trimmed principally with insertions of lace, either white or of an écru shade.” This early 1900s predecessor of Martha Stewart goes on to recommend that if you are using old, slightly soiled lace as a trimming, “it is a good idea to dip it in coffee and color it to the prevailing fashionable tint of écru. It may then be used to trim a white muslin gown. Very often the most inexpensive lace in white if treated in this manner assumes quite an elegance of its own and makes an extremely pretty trimming for a sheer white muslin gown.”

William Merritt Chase (American, 1849–1916). A Friendly Call, 1895. Oil on canvas. Chester Dale Collection, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington,

The Advertisers Cyclopedia of Selling Phrases (1909) devotes an entire section to “White Goods.” For example, Donaldson’s of Minneapolis reminds shoppers to purchase “a large and varied assortment of dainty white fabrics in all the most desirable materials, consisting of India Linens, Persian Lawns, Organdies, Swisses, Mercerized Poplins, etc. It is high time to have the materials for your summer gown in the dressmaker’s hands.” Meanwhile, in New York, Bloomingdale’s gets right to the point, “White stuffs lead, you know!”

Charles Dana Gibson (1867–1944). Advice to Students: Be Read to. It Saves the Eyes for Better Things. Illustration from Americans, 1900
Short-sleeved bodice from Bartow-Pell’s ensemble
William Thomas Smedley (American, 1858–1920). Cover illustration, The Ladies’ Home Journal: The Summer Fashion Number, June 1908

Let’s take a look at a white dress of about 1895 in Bartow-Pell’s costume collection. Our eyelet lace ensemble is made of a fine lawn fabric and is embellished with lace insertions and embroidery. The separate skirt comes with a choice of two bodices—a long-sleeved version with a high neck for day wear, and a short-sleeved one with a lower, open neckline to wear to “dances and similar occasions. I always think it wise to have two bodices for either a white or a black dress, especially if one goes out much, for . . . one can in this way have two distinct dresses to all intents and purposes at very slight expense,” as Hélène advised in “Fashions from Paris” in Home Notes (November 1895). The sleeves of Bartow-Pell’s day bodice are very full at the top and fitted below the elbow. They are cut in the stylish leg-of-mutton shape from the mid-1890s, which was a revival of the gigot sleeves from the 1830s. Alternatively, the dressier (and lacier) low-necked bodice has short, puffed lace sleeves, a square lace-trimmed neckline, a lace yoke, and covered back buttons. The bodices, which are slightly pouched, presage the fashionable pigeon-breasted silhouette of the early 1900s. Readers of Leslie’s Weekly learned about this new style on February 28, 1895: “The favorite bodice has a pouched front. That is, it bags over the belt directly at the centre.” The skirt is narrow through the hips and flares out at the bottom; numerous small tucks control the fullness of the fabric. A succession of lace insertions gives an illusion of flounces, and a short demi-train sweeps the floor. This dress may have been worn in her youth by a member of the International Garden Club (now the Bartow-Pell Conservancy) or by one of her relatives.

Bain News Service, publisher. Garden party, Governor’s Island, New York, Florence Kimball and escort, May 27, 1908. Glass negative. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Hats were a big fashion trend in the 1890s as bonnets began to go out of style. And in the early 1900s, hats just got bigger. These frothy concoctions often had trimmings galore, such as flowers, ostrich plumes, feathers, ribbons, and bows. However it was decorated, a stylish hat was easy to coordinate with a lovely white dress. In summer weather, women carried parasols, which were essential for protecting delicate complexions from the sun. Bartow-Pell’s collection includes one from B. Altman, the legendary New York department store. “Parasols to match the gowns are exceedingly fashionable,” writes Marie Duval in “Artistic Parasols” (Godey’s, July 1895). “A pretty brunette attired in a white, dotted muslin gown, trimmed with yellow lace and ribbon, is thoroughly bewitching beneath a white dotted parasol edged with narrow yellow ribbon.”

Eleanor Roosevelt (center rear) and Franklin Delano Roosevelt (front center) with others at Campobello Island, 1910. Courtesy of the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library archives. In September 1908, American Lawn Tennis describes women’s “tennis togs” as “simple, plain white dresses, with sometimes a bit of color, or ribbons, at the throat and wrists, but immaculate appearing, even after a hard match.”

These outfits were especially popular for outdoor events. White fabrics were not only cool in summer weather, but they also created a pleasing picture when worn in the open air amidst fresh green grass and leafy trees. In July 1878, Demorest’s Monthly Magazine describes attire for garden parties: “The revival of lawns and muslins has given us a suitable material for garden-party costumes, of which ladies are availing themselves of largely. White is, of course, always used more or less, and still forms a large proportion of the toilets now upon dressy occasions of this character.” And sometimes, women dressed in white for lawn tennis, croquet, and yachting.

Thomas Eakins (American, 1844–1916). Two Pupils in Greek Dress, 1883. Platinum print. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, David Hunter McAlpin Fund, 1943. White garments were frequently depicted in 19th-century interpretations of classical antiquity.

It is well known that white dresses come from a long fashion tradition and were not just a fin-de-siècle fad. In the 1780s, Marie Antoinette popularized simple white muslin dresses in a style known as the chemise à la reine. These gowns—which reflect the aristocracy’s fascination with pastoral life—caused a royal scandale because their informal appearance was considered improper for the queen of France. Furthermore, these garments did nothing to support the French silk and luxury textile industry. Josephine Bonaparte was among the trendsetters in the early 19th century who favored diaphanous white dresses inspired by classical antiquity. Neoclassical artists such as Adam Buck (Anglo-Irish, 1759–1833) recognized the aesthetic appeal and cultural underpinnings of these white Grecian-style gowns—which were considered very modern—and depicted them in their work.

Elisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun (French, 1755–1842). Comtesse de la Châtre (Marie Charlotte Louise Perrette Aglaé Bontemps, 1762–1848), 1789. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Jessie Woolworth Donahue, 1954. Here, the aristocratic sitter wears a chemise gown. This simple, pastoral style—often made in white fabrics such as muslin—was made famous by Marie Antoinette after she wore one in a portrait by Vigée Le Brun that was exhibited at the Salon in 1783.
Marie Guillelmine Benoist (French, 1768–1826). Madame Philippe Panon Desbassayns de Richemont (Jeanne Eglé Mourgue, 1778–1855) and Her Son, Eugène (1800–1859), 1802. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Julia A. Berwind, 1953. White was a popular color for high-waisted Grecian-style gowns during the Neoclassical period.

Later, in the early 20th century, suffragists adopted white to symbolize the purity and solidarity of their movement.

Harris & Ewing, photographer. Helen Hitchcock, Woman Suffragette, 1914. Glass negative. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Sylvia Pankhurst recalls in The Suffragette (1911) that Emmeline Pethick-Lawrence came up with the movement’s colors of white, green, and purple for the massive demonstration in London at Hyde Park on June 21, 1908. Purple, white, and gold were commonly used in the United States.
Nine African-American women with Nannie Burroughs holding a banner reading “Banner State Woman’s National Baptist Convention,” 1905–15. Photograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Educator and activist Nannie Helen Burroughs (1879–1961) was a supporter of women’s suffrage. American women finally got the right to vote in 1920 after the 19th amendment was signed into law.

White—with its ability to send a strong message—has been a powerful symbol throughout history. For example, babies, children, debutantes, and brides have worn it to signify purity, innocence, and virtue. And, at times, white has been worn for mourning.

Graduating class, Straight University, New Orleans, 1909. The New York Public Library Digital Collections. Straight University in New Orleans was an HBCU (Historically Black Colleges and Universities) in operation between 1868 and 1934. In this photograph from 1909, women graduates follow current practice and wear white for commencement. “The graduation dress must be all white, of course, and should be made of simple . . . materials exquisitely fine and trimmed with fine lace or embroidery.” (The Delineator, May 1911).
Daisy Chain, Vassar College, 1909. Postcard. College women sometimes wore white for annual traditions such as the Daisy Chain at Vassar College and Ivy Day at Smith College.

Around the turn of the 20th century, women across the social spectrum were keen to own pretty white summer dresses, including the wives and daughters of farmers and railroad workers, college students, working women, housewives, Gibson Girl sophisticates, and society ladies. This wardrobe staple was always in good taste. Besides, it was a great look.

Margaret Highland, Historian

Family group in Florence, Alabama, ca. 1910

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Rose Garden Mania: A New York City Garden Club Joins the Craze in 1917

Summer roses at Bartow-Pell. Photo by Richard Warren, 2014

Rose gardens were definitely a thing in the early 20th century. The so-called Queen of Flowers—redolent of summer pleasures—filled gardens large and small with a heady mix of colors, scents, shapes, and sizes that ranged from subtle to dramatic.

The International Garden Club (IGC) was formed in 1914 at a time when many public and private rose gardens were being planted and an interest in gardens and garden clubs was in the air, especially among well-to-do society women. The IGC, an ambitious new horticultural organization, was the brainchild of the energetic socialite and gardener Zelia Hoffman (1867–1929) and her British friend, the author and gardener Alice Martineau (ca. 1865–1956). Mrs. Hoffman recruited a number of wealthy, well-connected garden enthusiasts and horticultural experts as members, and the club leased from the City of New York the old Bartow mansion—located in the Bronx’s Pelham Bay Park—to use as their headquarters. The IGC quickly hired the white-shoe architectural firm of Delano & Aldrich to restore and modernize the dilapidated historic building and to create a formal terraced and walled garden with a fountain. The members raised an extraordinary sum in a very short time—about one hundred thousand dollars—to pay for these projects, which were completed in 1915. The only thing missing was a rose garden . . . but there would soon be a plan for that.

Jules Gravereaux. Cover illustration from La Vie à la Campagne, June 1, 1907. In the early 20th century, Monsieur Gravereaux’s collection of roses comprised every type known in the world at the time.

“The number of Rose gardens is nowadays considerable, and they are increasing year by year. . . . At the beginning of the 20th century it is beyond question that every decent estate should, somewhere or other, in a suitable position, include a Rose garden,” declared the great French rosarian Jules Gravereaux (1844–1916) in a 1914 article in the Rose Annual (later reprinted in the 1917 IGC Journal). Rose gardens were sprouting up all over the place.

In early 1916, about five miles from Bartow-Pell, the New York Botanical Garden approved plans for its rose garden—which was designed by the well-known landscape gardener Beatrix Farrand (1872–1959)—and broke ground later that year. The following spring, on April 22, 1917, the New York Times cheerfully announced that the NYBG was planning “one of the great rose gardens of the world.” Farrand’s garden opened in 1918. At the same time, on the other side of the Bronx, the race was on at the old Bartow estate to create its own world-class rose garden. As the club’s Journal put it in August 1917, the IGC was determined to be the first to open a “place [in or near New York City] where the rose can be studied and enjoyed by the general public.”

Frances Benjamin Johnston (American, 1864–1952) and Mattie Edwards Hewitt (American, 1869–1956), photographers. Rose trellis at Armsea Hall, the Charles Frederick Hoffman Jr. house, Narragansett Bay, Newport, Rhode Island, summer 1914. Hand-colored lantern slide. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Zelia Hoffman had her rose trellis made by an ironmonger in Nice, France, and shipped to her in Newport, where it was enlarged by local workmen. “When the roses are in bloom from July 27 (as that is almost the date to a day . . . ) to the middle of August, they are a wonderful picture which people come from far and near to admire,” she writes in the 1918 IGC Journal. “In September and October, the long new growth of the summer is trained over the trellis . . . This takes long, but there is no more delightful occupation than this in the month of September . . . It is like doing embroidery—only one’s worsteds are living branches.” (For more photographs by Johnston and Hewitt of early 20th-century rose gardens, click here.)

IGC president Zelia Hoffman adored roses and had glorious ones at Armsea Hall, her palatial house on Narragansett Bay. “One of the attractive features of Mrs. Hoffman’s Newport garden is the long rose arbor over a path leading down to the sea,” writes the rose-smitten author of “The Woman and Her Rose Garden,” published in The New Country Life in June 1917. “It is the especial pride of Mrs. Hoffman and demonstrates to what state of perfection the blooms may be brought by one who knows the rose and its needs.”

The Rose Garden of C. Oliver Iselin, Esq., New Rochelle, N.Y. Illustration from The Architectural Review, May 1908

Meanwhile, another impressive private rose garden could be found about five miles north of the Bartow estate at All View, the famous yachtsman C. Oliver Iselin’s spectacular waterfront mansion at Premium Point in New Rochelle. The garden was published in the Architectural Review in May 1908 and was undoubtedly overseen by Mrs. Iselin, née Hope Goddard, who was an avid gardener (as well as “the only woman ever to sail as a member of the crew defending the America’s Cup,” according to her 1970 obituary in the Times). 

Other notable early 20th-century American rose gardens include Elizabeth Park in West Hartford, Connecticut (1904)—which was the first municipal rose garden in the United States—and those of Henry and Arabella Huntington at San Marino, California (1908), the White House (1913), and the E. M. Mills Rose Garden in Syracuse, New York (1924), all of which still flourish today.

La Roseraie de l’Hay (Roseraie de L’Haÿ-les-Roses). Journal of the International Garden Club, August 1917. Jules Gravereaux’s famous rose garden at his estate near Paris influenced the International Garden Club’s 1917 proposal.

Delano & Aldrich’s proposal for the IGC was inspired by the Roseraie de L’Haÿ (now known as the Roseraie du Val-de-Marne), Jules Gravereaux’s celebrated rose garden at his house near Paris. (Beatrix Farrand also looked to Gravereaux’s garden when she drew up her plans for the NYBG.) Monsieur Gravereaux made his fortune as an executive at the renowned Parisian department store Le Bon Marché. He began collecting roses in 1894, and by 1910 his extensive garden included all the roses known in the world at that time. Furthermore, as an illustrious rosarian and good citizen who enjoyed an exciting project, he advised the city of Paris on the new rose garden at the Château de Bagatelle in the Bois de Boulogne and donated a number of roses for it. In addition, at the Château de Malmaison, where Josephine Bonaparte had had a famous rose garden, Gravereaux re-established many of the empress’s original varieties by studying the botanical illustrations drawn by her court artist Pierre-Joseph Redouté.

Pierre Joseph Redouté (French, 1759–1840). Rosa Gallica Officinalis; Rosier des Apothicaires, from Les Roses, 1817–24. Colored stipple engraving. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Print Collection, The New York Public Library. In the early 20th century, Jules Gravereaux looked at engravings by Redouté, Josephine Bonaparte’s court artist, to identify the roses that were needed to re-establish her Napoleonic-era rose garden at Malmaison.

In August 1917, in the IGC’s new horticultural journal—Journal of the International Garden Club—William Adams Delano (1874–1960) announced his plans for the club’s magnificent rose garden. The garden must “be accessible for the public, as well as for members.” Good soil, perfect drainage, and a southern exposure were required. “All these conditions were found in the remains of an old apple-orchard near the main entrance to the Club, just East of the entrance drive.” Furthermore, “the old apple-trees, if they can be preserved, will give an air of age to the Garden.” Delano wisely notes: “Every garden to be enjoyed must have a sense of privacy. It will not do to have motor cars whizzing by in full view, nor can the beds dwindle off into daisy fields without well-defined boundaries.”

Madame Caroline Testout hybrid tea roses. Illustration from How to Grow Roses, 1916. These “large, rich, satiny pink flowers” were suggested for the “finest blooms” section of the proposed IGC rose garden.
Madame Ravary hybrid tea rose. Illustration from Roses and Rose Growing by Rose G. Kingsley, 1908. The French rosarian Joseph Pernet-Ducher created this rose, which was also picked for the IGC’s “finest blooms” category.

The IGC’s rose garden would sit on gently sloping ground “only a step from the entrance gate and from the Club House.” It would be divided into terraces and be framed by walls, balustrades, and steps to “pull the whole together,” the architect writes. There would be five collections of roses on three levels. The categories were historical, botanical, “modern” (19th century), “new” (20th century), and “finest blooms,” such as Madame Caroline Testout, Captain Christy, Frau Karl Druschki, Madame Ravary, and La Tosca.

William Adams Delano (1874–1960), Delano & Aldrich. Proposed Rose Garden for the International Garden Club, Bartow Mansion, Pelham Bay Park, New York City, 1917. Published in the Journal of the International Garden Club, August 1917

“An arbor covered with a profusion of rambling, climbing roses” would line the perimeter, and “a planting of vines and trees” would grow to stretch “their branches over the wall on the north, east and west,” adding “another charm to the Garden and keep[ing] off the cold winds.” The arbors were designed to connect four classical-style “small houses” with pedimented entrances, which were to stand at the center of each side of the garden walls. One of these edifices was the main entrance, which would “contain a stairway leading to the central terrace.” The other three buildings would house a “collection of pictures of roses,” a card catalogue, and a library, “where all the literature pertaining to roses that can be found will be collected.” A fountain—surrounded by “a collection of the most perfect roses”—would serve as a focal point for the symmetrical design. The idea of a formal rectilinear terraced garden with a central fountain ties the proposed rose garden to Bartow-Pell’s 1915 formal garden, also designed by Delano & Aldrich.

Title page from Roseraie de L’Haÿ: Catalogue 1900. Thousands of roses are listed in this charmingly illustrated catalogue compiled by Jules Gravereaux in 1900.

The planting plans reflect Jules Gravereaux’s ideas on a rose garden de collection. The “real Rose garden should not be merely decorative but contain a collection . . . resulting from a deliberate selection,” he writes in “La Roseraie de l’Haÿ” (1914). “The Rosary de collection” he adds, “is the result of an intimate cooperation between the Rose lover and the landscape gardener.” Gravereaux observes, rather disapprovingly, that the decorative rose garden, “which may be termed a garden adorned with Roses, is very much in vogue today.” But, in his opinion, that approach “is like a pretty woman without brains. She may attract attention for a time, but does not retain it.”

The English-born horticulturalist Arthur Herrington (1866–1950)—whose distinguished career included working in Britain for the influential landscape gardener William Robinson—had recently overseen the horticultural work for the 1915 formal garden at Bartow and was to be in charge of “laying out and developing the [rose] garden,” according to the IGC Journal.

Sydney Percy Kendrick (British, 1874–1955). Mrs. Charles Frederick Hoffman, ca. 1930. Oil on canvas. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mrs. Aymar Johnson, 1978.02

The thrilling new garden would be a collaborative project led by Zelia Hoffman (IGC president), William Adams Delano (architect), and Arthur Herrington (landscape gardener). Eighty pages of articles about roses in the 1917 IGC Journal added to the buzz. The club was on a roll. So, why was the proposed garden never built? The answer is World War I.

The war changed everything. “A campaign to raise funds for the building of a Rose Garden, modelled after those near Paris of Bagatelle and the Roseraie de l’Hay, had just been started this spring when we entered the war,” Hoffman reports in the IGC Journal of August 1917. “The site of the Rose Garden will be for the present planted to vegetables. The grounds of the Club will be offered to the Westchester Red Cross Society for open air hospital purposes in case a large number of wounded should come to us.” She has more to say in “Shall We Grow Roses in Wartime?,” in the 1918 American Rose Annual. “I only regret that the great municipal rose-garden which the International Garden Club has projected for the City of New York is not existing and ready to do its share in bringing inspiration, relief, and peace to the wounded among our people in this torn and agitated time,” she laments. The moment had passed, and the IGC’s rose garden was buried in history.

Margaret Highland, Historian

The front gate at Bartow-Pell (formerly the International Garden Club). Dense woods grow today where the IGC hoped to plant their rose garden in 1917.

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A Carpet of Velvety Green: Lawns on 19th-Century Country Estates

The rear lawn and the 1915 Delano & Aldrich formal garden at Bartow-Pell were restored by Mark K. Morrison Landscape Architecture PC with a 2012 Partners in Preservation grant from the National Trust and American Express. The mansion was completed in 1842. In the 1844 edition of A. J. Downing’s Treatise on the Theory and Practice of Landscape Gardening, he writes that buildings with a “simplicity of outline . . . harmonize best with all landscape . . . of simple or graceful beauty.” Downing was a great admirer of “a finely undulating lawn”; ordinarily, he found a flat surface “extremely dull and uninteresting.”

A beautiful undulating carpet of fresh green grass was an essential luxury on 19th-century country estates. Today, that idea may seem fairly obvious, but why? And how did the landed gentry plant and maintain their expansive (and expensive) lawns in the days before modern equipment?

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, wealthy Americans followed English models of architecture and landscaping, which they learned about from books, engravings, paintings, travel, and immigrants. This was a period when British landscape designers embraced the Romantic picturesque elements of an idealized natural style and rejected the formal, geometric aesthetic of French and Continental gardens. The new fashion was popularized by the great British landscape gardeners of the age—including Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716–1783), Humphry Repton (1752–1818), William Sawrey Gilpin (1762–1843), and John Claudius Loudon (1783–1843)—and their followers in the United States, such as Irish-born Bernard McMahon (ca. 1775–1816), Belgian émigré André Parmentier (1780–1830), and American wunderkind Andrew Jackson Downing (1815–1852). These American gardeners created a new national style that was suitable for the North American climate.

John Preston Neale (English, 1780–1847), artist, and J. C. Varrall, engraver. Attingham Hall, Shropshire, 1826. Illustration from Views of the Seats of Noblemen and Gentlemen in England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland, 2nd series, v. 3. In 1797, the 2nd Lord Berwick commissioned Humphry Repton to modernize the grounds at Attingham Park, where many of Repton’s original improvements remain today. A. J. Downing greatly admired Repton and considered him to be one of England’s most important landscape gardeners. In his Treatise, Downing turns to him on the subject of open lawns near houses. “‘The mind,’ says Repton, ‘feels a certain disgust under a sense of confinement in any situation however beautiful.’ A wide-spread lawn, on the contrary . . . conveys an expression of ample extent and space for enjoyment.”

Irregularity, curved lines, varied surfaces, unexpected views and vistas, meandering walks, majestic trees, interesting groupings of shrubs and plants, and, yes, lawns (especially dotted with a few choice trees), characterized the modern natural style. These elements were expected to work in harmony with architecture and the surrounding landscape. Although the look was natural, the design was contrived. In the 1844 edition of his treatise on landscape gardening, A. J. Downing writes that “in the grounds of a country residence,” natural beauty can be enhanced by “conducting all our improvements with an eye to picturesque expression.” British and American advocates of the modern style, however, varied in their interpretations of the ideal landscape, and writers such as Sir Uvedale Price (1747–1829) had strong opinions on the differences between the “beautiful,” the “picturesque,” and the “sublime.”

Claude Lorrain (French, 1604/5?–1682). View of La Crescenza, 1648–50. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, The Annenberg Fund Inc. Gift, 1978. British and American gardeners sometimes looked to landscape paintings for inspiration. Works by the 17th-century artists Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin, and Salvator Rosa were particular favorites. This view by Claude of a medieval fortress refashioned as a country house in the Roman campagna was in the collection of Richard Payne Knight. Knight—along with his friend Sir Uvedale Price—was a leading proponent of the picturesque in Britain and the author of The Landscape (1794), a didactic poem on the subject. A. J. Downing later wrote in his treatise on American landscape gardening, “To the lover of the fine arts, the name of Claude Lorraine [sic] cannot fail to suggest examples of beauty in its purest and most elegant forms.”

Thomas Jefferson and George Washington followed the latest gardening trends and were among the first wealthy Americans who planted lawns as part of a larger landscaping scheme in the natural, English taste. On June 2, 1798, the Polish writer Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz visited Mount Vernon, where he admired a grove of locust trees planted on “a green carpet of the most beautiful velvet.” In his book George Washington’s Eye, Joseph Manca shares an account of Washington’s gardens written about 1788–89 by the military officer, writer, and gentleman farmer David Humphreys, who describes “a lawn of 5 acres in front & about the same in rear of the buildings. . . . On the north-end it subsides gradually into extensive pasture grounds; while on the south it slopes more steeply . . . and terminates with the coach-house, stables, vineyard & nurseries.”

Unidentified artist, Mount Vernon, 19th century. Watercolor and pen and ink on paper. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Gift of Herbert Waide Hemphill, Jr. and museum purchase made possible by Ralph Cross Johnson. This folky watercolor is a loose copy of an aquatint published in 1800 by the London printmaker Francis Jukes from original artwork by the Scottish-American artist Alexander Robertson.

What defined a lawn, exactly? In 1830, according to Webster’s American Dictionary of the English Language, it was “an open space between woods, or a plain in a park [i.e., the land surrounding a country house] or adjoining a noble seat.” To be clear, a lawn was not the same as a meadow, pasture, or clearing. Lawns—which were extremely labor-intensive—were expensive to plant and maintain. These costly status symbols were the perfect way to showcase a handsome mansion on a gentleman’s country estate.

In the 19th century, well-to-do Americans were keen to own a country seat, partially as a means to escape urban and industrial areas, which were becoming more crowded, dirty, and disease-ridden. As part of this movement, on April 25, 1836, Robert Bartow and his wife, Maria, paid $40,000 for 233 acres of waterfront property in the countryside just north of New York City—land that had once belonged to his Bartow and Pell ancestors—and made plans to build a splendid mansion. Naturally, new landscaping in the current taste would have been part of that scheme.

Bartow mansion, albumen print, ca. 1870, Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum (left). Bartow estate, Map showing topographical survey of land to be taken for Pelham Bay Park (detail), 1885, Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library (right). The Bartow mansion had a large front lawn bordered by an oval tree-lined entrance drive and a smaller lawn sloping down to the water at the back.

Robert and Maria Bartow were among the wealthy New Yorkers who owned country houses on Long Island Sound in the picturesque area that is now Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. Here, lawns, gardens, and orchards joined pastures, farmland, marshes, and woodland on idyllic estates. The Bartows’ neighbor Elisha King hired noted horticulturalist André Parmentier to lay out the grounds at Hawkswood, King’s fine 1829 Greek Revival mansion designed by Martin Euclid Thompson near City Island. In “Landscapes and Picturesque Gardens” (1828), Parmentier advises: “The front of the house ought always to be uncovered” and “open to public view; otherwise the taste and expense are, in a great measure, thrown away.” He also says that “it is desirable that a grass-plot should naturally present itself.”

Pelham—Rodman’s Neck, New York. Illustration from Atkinson’s Casket (Philadelphia), October 1831. The architect Martin Euclid Thompson built Hawkswood for Elisha King in 1828–29. This Greek Revival mansion sat on a rise with magnificent views of Long Island Sound and was surrounded by beautiful lawns and grounds designed by André Parmentier. “The Lawn is enriched with almost every variety of tree and shrub, and its arrangement is one of the happiest efforts of the late distinguished Landscape Gardener, Mr. Andrew Parmentier, of Brooklyn. . . . The situation is peculiarly picturesque.” The house was subsequently owned by Levin R. Marshall but was demolished in the 1930s.

John Hunter mansion and grounds, Hunter Island, New York, 1882. Albumen prints. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York. On July 11, 1839, a reporter for the Morning Herald noted the “beauty and picturesque effect” en route to Hunter’s estate and admired “the house on the summit of a hill, covered with groves of trees, lawn, grass plats, and rich fields of grain.” “A sloping lawn of great beauty, interspersed with flower borders, leads from the east front steps to the water’s edge,” he wrote.

John Hunter’s Pelham Bay estate—modeled after those of the English nobility—was on its own island, which A. J. Downing describes in his Treatise. “The whole island may be considered an extensive park, carpeted with soft lawn and studded with noble trees,” he observes. Downing was also impressed by Robert Bolton’s Pelham Priory, which embodied the Romantic notion of the picturesque and was surrounded by lawns and woods, a faux ruin, and a gazebo.

William Rickarby Miller (1818–1893). Pelham Priory (left) and Woodland Path, Pelham Priory (right), 1856. Watercolor on paper. Collection of Catherine Boericke. Robert Bolton designed his 1838 neo-Gothic pile—and the surrounding gardens—in a highly Romantic picturesque style. According to Robert Bolton Jr.’s family history, “the grounds and woodlands were being more and more cultivated and adorned under Mr. Bolton’s eye, and became objects of admiration to visitors,” including his friend Washington Irving, who “took a lively interest in this specimen of English landscape gardening.” In these 1856 watercolors, spacious lawns slope down from the house and are shaded by stately trees. A formal geometric flower garden contrasts with the otherwise natural aesthetic.

How were these lawns achieved? Downing discusses the subject in the November 1846 issue of The Horticulturalist (which he edited). “We love most the soft turf which, beneath the flickering shadows of scattered trees, is thrown like a smooth natural carpet over the swelling outline of the smiling earth,” he writes. But growing a lawn and keeping it green wasn’t that easy. The American climate, “so bright and sunny” with the “summer searing” of July and August, made it harder to maintain “the perpetual softness and verdure of an ‘English lawn.’” But Downing had good news. “Fine lawns” could be had “in all the northern half of the Union” if people followed three important rules—“deep soil, the proper kinds of grasses, and frequent mowing.

First, the soil must be prepared. Downing recommends doing this in the autumn or early winter so that the ground has time to settle before it is seeded in the spring. “Large lawn surfaces are only to be managed (unless expense is not a consideration) with the subsoil plough . . . worked by two yoke of oxen” to turn up the soil two feet deep. Then a harrow should be used to break up clumps of dirt, and the area must be cleared of all stones. “It is quite impossible to mow a lawn well that is not as smooth as ground can be made,” he warns. Manure may be applied while subsoiling, but it is not needed “if the land is strong and in good heart.” “The object in a lawn,” he reminds us, “is not to obtain a heavy crop of hay, but simply to maintain perpetual verdure. Rich soil would defeat our object by causing rank growth and coarse stalks, when we wish short growth and soft herbage.”

In early spring, Downing says to stir the soil “lightly with the plough and harrow, and make the surface as smooth as possible—we do not mean level, for if the ground is not a flat, nothing is so agreeable as gentle swells or undulations. But quite smooth the surface must be.” When it is time to sow the seeds, Downing recommends a mixture of red-top (Agostis vulgaris) and white clover (Trifolium repens), “which are hardy short grasses” that “make the best and most enduring lawn for this climate. . . . The seed should be perfectly clean; then sow four bushels of it to the acre; not a pint less as you hope to walk upon velvet! Finish the whole by rolling the surface evenly and neatly. A few soft vernal showers and bright sunny days will show you a coat of verdure bright as emerald.” Hopefully nature cooperated.

Preparing for Croquet. Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, July 22, 1871. By the 1870s, croquet had become very popular as a lawn game, especially for ladies. “The accompanying illustration will please every body who takes any enjoyment in the game. The workmen have come out with their scythes to mow the lawn into perfect smoothness.” Lawn scythes were the traditional method for cutting grass, and although mechanical mowers had been invented by this time, they were not in widespread use.

How did gardeners mow and maintain these velvety green carpets? “After your lawn is once fairly established, there are but two secrets in keeping it perfect—frequent mowing and rolling,” Downing advises. Scythes were used for cutting grass, sometimes even after the lawn mower became widely available in the late 19th century. Downing recommends using an “English lawn scythe” with a broad blade “of the most perfect temper and quality, which will hold an edge like a razor.” “Of course, a lawn can only be cut when the grass is damp, and rolling is best performed directly after rain.” Lawn rollers—preferably made of iron—ensured that the ground remained smooth. “The English always roll a few hours before using the scythe. On large lawns, a donkey or light horse may be advantageously employed in performing this operation.”

Horse lawn boots. From the private collection of Mark K. Morrison. These “improved patent” leather boots were worn by Shire horses when walking across a lawn so as not to damage the turf. Collector Mark Morrison notes that “they are similar to medicine boots, which had poultices put in them when a horse had a bad hoof.”

Gardeners used rakes and brooms to remove grass cuttings. Specialized tools included edgers for trimming borders. For grassy areas away from the “dressed portions of the estate,” Downing’s friend Henry W. Sargent suggests using sheep to keep turf short and “diminish the amount of lawn now kept under the scythe . . . increasing very much the charm of the landscape” (The Horticulturalist, November 1849).

The roller water-engine. Illustration from John Claudius Loudon, An Encyclopedia of Gardening (London), 1835. “The roller water-engine consists of a horse, frame, and wheels, on which is placed a water-barrel, and under it an iron roller. It is an excellent machine for lawns and roads, as they may be watered and rolled by the same operation.”

Finally, how were lawns watered? Deep tilling helped keep roots moist. Water barrels—on wheelbarrows or horse-drawn—and eventually rubber hoses and sprinklers were among the systems that were used. Water sources could include cisterns, wells, reservoirs, streams, and ponds.  In any case, it was probably easiest to hope for rain.

At first, lawns were only for rich country gentlemen, but with the advent of the suburban front yard, anyone could have a private carpet of velvety green.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Just Up the Road: Henry James’s Cousin Minny Temple

1874 Map of Pelham and New Rochelle, Pelham Manor and Huguenot Heights Association

Map Showing Location of Lands of the Pelham Manor and Huguenot Heights Association (detail). Stephens Brothers & Co., New York City, publisher, 1874. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. This 1874 map shows the location of the house that belonged to Minny Temple’s brother-in-law Richard Stockton Emmet on Weyman Avenue and Pelham Road in New Rochelle. Properties where his siblings Lydia Hubley Emmet and William Jenkins Emmet and the Emmets’ relative Robert White Edgar lived are also depicted. R. S. Emmet’s estate was near the steamboat landing, which was on a little island in the Sound that was also the location of the Neptune House, a popular resort hotel with beautiful grounds and superb water views.

About two miles up the road from the Bartow mansion—near the border of Pelham and New Rochelle, New York—24-year-old Mary “Minny” Temple (1845–1870) died of tuberculosis on March 8, 1870. Her first cousin the novelist Henry James (1843–1916) received the sad tidings at the English spa town of Malvern in a letter from his mother, “news more strange & painful than I can find words to express,” he replied.

Mary Temple Houghton Library

Mary “Minny” Temple (1845–1870), ca. 1870. Houghton Library, Harvard College Library

Minny was full of life and energy. She was unaffected, an independent thinker, a lively and opinionated conversationalist, at times an irreverent rebel, and—sometimes—a dreamer. Her brilliant smile lit up a room. At 16, she cropped off all of her hair to half an inch and had a photograph taken. Minny enjoyed going to balls and to the opera. She liked to “knock about all day in a sleigh” in “the fresh air and sunshine,” as she wrote to her friend John Chipman Gray. She also fantasized about joining Henry James in Europe despite her illness, and she had a deep longing to meet the author George Eliot—whom she greatly admired as both a person and a writer—as her literary cousin did. Her close friends and contemporaries were intellectual and often artistic, and her social circle included the artist Helena de Kay, the painter Lizzie Boott (who married the artist Frank Duveneck), the future Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., and Henry’s brother, the philosopher and psychologist William James. Minny’s luminous personality—bursting with intelligence and vitality—was magnetic.

HJ ca. 1863-4 Houghton

Henry James (1843–1916), ca. 1863–64. Houghton Library, Harvard College Library

James writes about Minny at length in his autobiography Notes of a Son and Brother. “She was absolutely afraid of nothing she might come to by living with enough sincerity and enough wonder,” he wrote. She was “an asker of endless questions.” In a letter to his mother dated March 26, 1870, James remembers his cousin’s “wonderful ethereal brightness of presence which was so peculiarly her own.” He mourns her early death and wistfully confides: “It comes home to me with irresistible power, the sense how much I knew her & how much I loved her.” Now “she is dead—silent—absent forever.”

James brought his cousin back to life in several of his most important novels. Minny appears loosely as a free-spirited American abroad in Daisy Miller (1878). Later, in The Portrait of a Lady (1881), she is resurrected as Isabel Archer, the unforgettable, headstrong heroine of what is perhaps the author’s finest novel. Finally, Minny Temple inspired the character of Milly Theale—the doomed protagonist of James’s late novel The Wings of the Dove (1902)—whose poignant struggle and premature death from a long illness recalls Minny’s own life cut short.

Minny Temple was born on December 7, 1845, to Colonel Robert Emmet Temple and his wife, Catherine James Temple, of Albany, New York. (Minny’s mother was the sister of Henry James Sr.) In 1854, when the couple died of tuberculosis, their six surviving children—two boys and four girls—went to live with relatives, spending time in Albany, Newport, Cambridge, and Pelham/New Rochelle, among other places.

The Temple and James families were both related to the Emmet family of New Rochelle. Today New Rochelle is a densely populated suburban city, but in the 19th century, country estates dotted the area. These properties were owned by wealthy New Yorkers, such as the Emmets, who enjoyed being away from the city but close to the metropolis and near Long Island Sound. The Emmets were descended from the Irish patriot and lawyer Thomas Addis Emmet, an Anglo-Irish protestant who was imprisoned and exiled after taking up the nationalist cause. He immigrated to the United States in 1804. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, several Emmet women had careers as well-known artists.

Christ Church, Pelham

William Rickarby Miller (1818–1893). Christ Church, Pelham, 1856. Watercolor on paper. Collection of Catherine Boericke. This was the Emmet family church in Pelham. It is where Kitty Temple and Richard Stockton Emmet were married in 1868, and where Minny Temple’s funeral took place in 1870. The Reverend Robert Bolton and his sons built the church on the grounds of their home and school, the Pelham Priory.

1874 map detail

This is another detail from the 1874 map of Pelham and New Rochelle, which shows the homes of Richard Stockton Emmet, Lydia Hubley Emmet, William Jenkins Emmet, and Robert White Edgar, as well as Frederic Prime’s house, the Bolton Priory, and Christ Church.

The three families—James, Temple, and Emmet—became even more entwined when the eldest Temple sister, Katherine (“Kitty”), married Richard “Dick” Stockton Emmet at Christ Church, Pelham, on September 29, 1868. The middle-aged bridegroom was more than 20 years older than the bride. As Lyndall Gordon writes in A Private Life of Henry James, “the marriage would enable Kitty to provide a home for her sisters.” A year later, another sister, Ellen (“Elly”) James Temple, married the groom’s brother, Christopher Temple Emmet. Minny wrote to Henry James about her sister’s “startling” engagement in a letter from Pelham dated August 15, 1869, now in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. “He is 28 years older than Elly—being forty-seven. We were all a good deal astonished by her engagement. . . . She is very happy, & they are both, apparently, very much in love with each other. . . . Kitty’s little venture in the way of marrying one’s grandfather has turned out so well, that I ought to feel quite safe about Elly.” Shortly after the wedding, Henry James wrote to his father, “I don’t a bit like Elly marrying that Methusaleh [sic].” (Methuselah was the Biblical patriarch who lived to be 969 years old, according to Genesis.)

Although Minny wrote to her various correspondents from her sister Kitty’s home in “Pelham,” the house was almost certainly the one that belonged to Kitty’s husband in the contiguous town of New Rochelle. This is a distinction that James scholars have overlooked, but it is of special interest for those of us who know the area well. The confusion is understandable because four Emmet family houses stood along a half-mile stretch in Pelham and New Rochelle on today’s Shore Road/Pelham Road. (The street name changes at the border.)

Edgewood, Frederick Prime house, 1860s

Edgewood, the country seat of Frederick Prime (1807–1887), New Rochelle, New York. Photograph, 1860s. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mrs. E. Chester Peet, 2003. Frederick Prime’s estate was next door to that of Richard Stockton Emmet. This is one of two large photographs of Prime’s house that were given to Bartow-Pell by one of his descendants. Here, Mr. Prime is likely posing with his second wife and some of his daughters. It appears that two young ladies have driven over in a buggy to pay them a visit (one holds a whip). Minny Temple wrote to Henry James on November 17, 1869, that “John Gray made us a little visit, at Pelham. . . . I took him out in a pony-wagon between the showers, & shook him up, & splashed his clothes.”

Pelham-N Rochelle border, 1851

Map of West Chester County, New York (detail), 1851. Newell S. Brown, White Plains, publisher. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. The circled structure on this 1851 map is unidentified but appears to be the same house that was later occupied by Richard Stockton Emmet on Weyman Avenue and Pelham Road in New Rochelle.

The house that once stood at 197 Weyman Avenue and Pelham Road in New Rochelle belonged to Richard Stockton Emmet, Kitty Temple’s husband and Minny’s brother-in-law. Some maps indicate that his acreage may have extended to what is today part of the Pelham Country Club golf course. There are no known images of the house, and its date of construction is unknown, but according to the Emmet family website, the house was built by Richard S. Emmet’s father, Robert Emmet, as a country house in the 1830s. This is presumably where Minny died while living with her sister Kitty.


Kemble House (Emmet Cottage), 145 Shore Road, Pelham and New Rochelle, New York. Courtesy of the Office of the Historian of the Town of Pelham. William R. Montgomery, former Historian of the Town of Pelham, took this photograph in 1923. The Emmet family owned the home for a number of years in the 19th century.

Three additional Emmet family houses were very closely situated to each other and appear consecutively on the 1870 New Rochelle census. The so-called Kemble House (also known as “Emmet Cottage”) still stands today at 145 Shore Road; the Pelham-New Rochelle border cuts directly through it. The original section of the home was built before the American Revolution. By 1870, the year of Minny’s death, ownership had passed to Lydia Hubley Emmet (Kitty and Elly’s unmarried sister-in-law), and at that time, the household included a number of Emmets, including C. Temple Emmet and his young wife, Elly (Minny’s sister). A few years later, it was the site of a notorious robbery by a gang of masked bandits. Early in the morning of December 23, 1873, the robbers handcuffed and gagged several members of the Emmet family and their servants before ransacking the house and breaking into the safe. The burglars were soon captured by the police and brought to trial.

Sheffield Island, New Rochelle, 1868

Map of New Rochelle, Westchester Co., N.Y. (detail). Atlas of New York and Vicinity, plate 38, F. W. Beers, cartographer, 1868. Lionel Pincus and Princess Firyal Map Division, The New York Public Library. The families of William Jenkins Emmet and his relative Robert White Edgar lived on Sheffield Island, which is now known as Travers Island and is the summer location of the New York Athletic Club. However, the water near the shore has been filled in, and it is no longer an island.

Henry James by Ellen Rand NPG DC

Ellen Emmet Rand (American, 1875–1941). Henry James, 1900. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Marjorie Edel in memory of Leon Edel. The artist Ellen Emmet Rand was the daughter of Minny Temple’s sister Elly and her husband, C. Temple Emmet. Henry James was her mother’s first cousin. In addition, Ellen Emmet Rand’s first cousins were the artists Rosina Emmet Sherwood, Lydia Field Emmet, and Jane Emmet de Glehn, the daughters of William Jenkins Emmet and his artist-wife Julia, who lived on Sheffield (Travers) Island in New Rochelle.

The next household on the 1870 New Rochelle census was that of another Emmet brother, William Jenkins Emmet, his wife and children, and their servants. They lived on Sheffield Island (known today as Travers Island), which was at that time connected to Shore Road by a short causeway. An 1868 map shows two dwellings on Sheffield Island. “Sedgemere,” the house on the south side, is labeled “W. J. Emmet.” (William Jenkins Emmet and his wife, the painter Julia Colt Pierson Emmet, were the parents of the artists Rosina Emmet Sherwood, Lydia Field Emmet, and Jane Erin Emmet de Glehn. Emmet’s Sedgemere Diary has been digitized by the Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution.) The house on the north side is labeled “R. W. Edgar,” which refers to the third Emmet household on the 1870 census, that of Robert White Edgar and his wife, Jane Emmet LeRoy Edgar, an Emmet cousin. In addition, the Edgars were the niece and nephew of Herman LeRoy Jr. and his wife, Juliet Edgar LeRoy, from whom in 1836, Robert and Maria Bartow purchased the estate that had belonged to Bartow’s grandfather.

Minny frequently corresponded with her good friend, the Harvard legal scholar John Chipman Gray. In a letter to him from Pelham dated January 27, 1869 (now in the Houghton Library at Harvard), she wrote: Kitty “takes good care of me & all the Emmets are so good & kind, that I found, when it came to the point, that there was a good deal that made life attractive, & that if the choice were given to me, I would a good deal rather stay up here, on the solid earth, in the air and sunshine . . . than to be put down, under the earth, and say good bye forever to humanity—with all its laughter and its sadness.” In a letter to Gray written on January 7, she told him: “I like to be out here in the country, and Kitty likes to have me with her. This being the case, her husband makes such a clamor when I propose to leave, that I am easily persuaded by his kindness and my own want of energy, to stay where I am. It is great fun living out here.”

Minny also enjoyed going in to New York City. “We are so near the town, that we go in very often, for the day, & do a little shopping, lunch with some of our numerous friends, and come out again, with a double relish for the country. We all went in, on a spree, the other night, & stayed at the Everett House, from which, as a starting point, we poured in in strong force, upon Mrs. Gracie King’s ball, a very grand affair, given for a very pretty Miss King, at Del Monico’s [sic]. On this occasion the raiding party consisted of thirteen Emmets & a moderate supply of Temples.” (Letter from Minny Temple to John Chipman Gray, January 7, 1869, Houghton Library, Harvard University)

In February 1869, about a year before her death, Henry James visited Minny on his way to an extended stay in Europe. In Notes of a Son and Brother, he describes seeing “her again, in the old-time Pelham parlours, ever so erectly slight and . . . so transparently, fair (I fatuously took this for ‘becoming’), glide as swiftly, toss her head as characteristically, laugh to as free a disclosure of the handsome largeish teeth that made her mouth almost the main fact of her face. . . . The house was quiet and spacious for the day, after the manner of all American houses of that age at those hours, and yet spoke of such a possible muster at need of generous, gregarious, neighbouring, sympathising Emmets.” Is James describing the Emmet house on Weyman Avenue in New Rochelle?

Pelham Priory rear resized

William Rickarby Miller. Pelham Priory, 1856. Watercolor on paper. Collection of Catherine Boericke. The youngest Temple sister, Henrietta, attended the Pelham Priory School, which was affiliated with Christ Church, Pelham.

Henrietta Temple, the youngest sister of Minny, Kitty, and Elly, was not far away. In 1870, she was a boarder at the Pelham Priory school, which was run by Nanette and Adele Bolton, the daughters of the Reverend Robert Bolton, an Episcopal minister who founded the school and was the first rector of Christ Church, Pelham. Christ Church archives reveal that in 1872 the Emmet family sat in pews 10 and 13, and Henrietta Temple shared pew 16 with the Bolton sisters. Today, a large stained-glass window in the sanctuary memorializes Katharine Temple Emmet and Richard Stockton Emmet.

Emmet Window, Christ Church, Pelham

Sarah Purser (Irish, 1848–1943), An Túr Gloine (Tower of Glass) studio, Dublin. Jesus Blesses the Children, Katharine Temple Emmet and Richard Stockton Emmet Memorial Window, Christ Church, Pelham, 1913. Photo courtesy of Arthur Scinta

As the hemorrhaging in her lungs worsened, Minny was examined by the doctors, who at times gave her contradictory and confusing reports. “The problem still bothers me,” she confided to John Chipman Gray on March 4, 1869, after being told that her lungs were “a pair that a prize-fighter might covet,” while being ordered to stay in the country and “not to get excited, nor to listen to music, nor to speak to anybody.” “Either sound lungs are a very dangerous things to possess, or there is a foul conspiracy on foot to oppress me.” Despite the many physical and mental setbacks that she describes in her letters, Minny faced her illness with bravery, humor, and hope.

On the day of Minny’s death, Tuesday, March 8, 1870, the ground was covered with about eight inches of snow, and the New York Times reported that hundreds of people went ice skating in the city after the previous night’s storm had passed. As for Minny, her struggle was finally over. The funeral was on March 11 at Christ Church, the beautiful little stone building in Pelham with stained-glass windows designed by William Jay Bolton. According to the church register, Minny was buried in Beechwoods Cemetery, New Rochelle, where her sister Kitty and other Emmets were later interred. Henry James wrote his mother on March 26, “I resent their having buried her at N. Rochelle. She ought to be among her own people.” In 1910, Minny was moved to Albany Rural Cemetery, where she now lies with the Temple and James families.

In March 2020, on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of her death, we remember the promise of Minny Temple’s short life and recognize the inspiration that she provided for one of our greatest American authors.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Multitasking Furniture: A Ladies’ Writing Fire Screen

Ladies' Writing Fire Screen, front and back

Attributed to Duncan Phyfe & Son (or Duncan Phyfe & Sons). Ladies’ writing fire screen, 1837–42. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stuart P. Feld, 2012.02

Ladies, take your pick. Writing desks, worktables, dressing tables, and even a writing fire screen. All made just for you. Some pieces can even multitask.

Starting in the 18th century, task-specific furniture—some made especially for women—appeared increasingly on the market. Why? First, the Industrial Revolution led to more profitable production methods, such as machine manufacturing, in England, France, and the United States. Economic growth followed, which meant that more and more people—including a burgeoning bourgeoisie—had the means to purchase a wider selection of fine home furnishings and other items. Enterprising makers, designers, and manufacturers seized the moment to produce a varied array of goods and novelties to tempt eager consumers, many of whom were women. While the “domestic sphere” encouraged them to become purchasers of task-specific furniture forms related to their duties in the home, advances in female education helped drive a demand for objects such as ladies’ writing desks.

A ladies’ writing fire-screen desk—which combines the functions of fire screen and fall-front desk—was given to Bartow-Pell in 2012 by Mr. and Mrs. Stuart P. Feld. The piece dates to about 1837–42 and is attributed to Duncan Phyfe & Sons (or Duncan Phyfe & Son). In 1837, Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854) made two of his sons his business partners—James D. and William. After William left the firm for other opportunities in 1841, James remained as his father’s sole partner.

Ladies' Writing Fire Screen

Attributed to Duncan Phyfe & Son. Ladies’ writing fire screen, ca. 1840. Photo courtesy of Carswell Rush Berlin, Inc., New York City. This piece—which is similar to the one at Bartow-Pell—is now in the collection of the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust and is on display at Millford Plantation in Pinewood, South Carolina. It is the same design as a writing fire screen (now in a private collection) that was listed on a bill of lading to John L. Manning, the original owner of Millford.

BPMM’s mahogany writing fire screen is similar to a documented piece that was made by D. Phyfe & Son and listed on a bill of lading dated June 2, 1841, for goods delivered to John L. Manning (1816–1889) in what is now Sumter County, South Carolina. At this time, he and his wife, Susan Hampton Manning (1816–1845), were in the midst of buying furnishings for their newly built home, Millford Plantation, a Greek Revival house that now belongs to the Classical American Homes Preservation Trust. (Although the Manning writing fire screen is now in a private collection, the Trust has purchased an identical example for Millford.) In 2012, Susan Manning’s writing fire screen was on view in Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York, an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, which was co-curated by Peter M. Kenny and Michael K. Brown. Mrs. Manning’s writing fire screen was part of a large shipment of furniture sent from D. Phyfe & Son in New York to her husband’s agent in Charleston. Many of these pieces were made in the so-called Grecian Plain style popularized by Phyfe, which featured architectonic forms, restrained classical elements, and figured veneers. The Manning writing fire screen and the one that was given to Bartow-Pell are both made in this plain style. The use of decorative fabric panels—seen on both of these pieces—was a common feature of fire screens.

Gentleman's fig. 1 and Lady's fig. 2 writing fire screens 1788, pl. 18

Gentleman’s Writing Fire Screen (left) and Lady’s Writing Fire Screen (right). Illustration from The Cabinet-Maker’s London Book of Prices, plate 18, figs.1 and 2, 1788

An early reference to a writing fire screen is found in The Cabinet-Makers London Book of Prices (1788), which lists two versions, one for a gentleman and one for a lady. The description of the latter reads: “A lady’s writing fire screen, all solid, the corners beaded, the inside fitted up for ink, sand, and wafers [for sealing letters], and a hollow for pens [quills], with 2 sliders [stacked dividers] for paper, no doors below.” Veneer and inlays (crossbanding and stringing) cost extra.

Screen table, Sheraton, plate 43

Thomas Sheraton (British, 1751–1806). A Screen Table. Illustration from The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book, 1793, plate 43. American cabinetmakers were familiar with this important pattern book by the influential British designer Thomas Sheraton.

A few years later, in 1793, Thomas Sheraton included a design for a screen-table in The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Drawing-Book. “This table is intended for a lady to write or work at near the fire; the screen part behind securing her face from its injuries.” Carswell Rush Berlin, decorative arts expert and BPMM Curatorial Committee chair, has identified the inspiration for Bartow-Pell’s writing fire screen as an écran-pupitre (screen-desk) in Pierre de La Mésangère’s Meubles et Objets de Goût, published in 1831.

Ecran-pupitre - detail

Ecran-pupitre (screen-desk). Illustration from Pierre de La Mésangère, editor, Meubles et Objets de Goût 4 (1831): plate 708. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1951. Pierre de La Mésangère’s 1831 design for an écran-pupitre is clearly the inspiration for Duncan Phyfe’s ladies’ writing fire screens, which were made about 1840 and are almost identical to the one shown in this engraving.

These desks are not very deep because they also function as fire screens, but the hinged fall-front provides a generous writing surface, and tiered compartments in the interior space behind it offer storage for desk supplies and papers. “Let us, therefore, open the writing-desk, and examine its contents,” writes Thomas Griffiths in The Writing-Desk and Its Contents (London, 1844). “First there are two glasses, the one full of ink, the other full of pounce; here is a bundle of quill pens; here are some steel pens, several quires of writing paper, a few sheets of blotting paper; here, again, are sticks of red and black sealing wax, and plenty of wafers; here a penknife, a hone, a strop, a paper knife, a wafer stamp, a pen wiper, a round ruler, a black lead pencil, a piece of India-rubber, a box of lucifers [matches], and a white wax taper.” In 1836, Godey’s reported: “It appears to us that much benefit has been produced by the inventors and professors of the new modes of forming the hand-writing, for the letters of almost every lady of these days are neat, elegant and legible.”

George Smith, The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide, 1826, plate 83

George Smith (British, active London 1808–33). Ladies Drawing Table and Ladies Screen Writing Table. Illustration from The Cabinet-Maker and Upholsterer’s Guide, 1826, plate 83. “The first subject in this plate is intended for the use of female artists, as well as to answer the purpose of a pier table. . . . The second subject in this plate exhibits a design for a writing table with a sliding screen at the back, which may be raised up or lowered at pleasure, and should be filled with plate glass.” These two inventive designs allowed women to use the same piece of furniture for more than one purpose.

A writing desk—from a small lap desk to a full-sized piece of furniture—was often highly personal. This is where private letters, valuables, and other items could be kept under lock and key. “The day before yesterday, accidentally hunting about in her bed-chamber for a letter I had mislaid, I found that the key of my bureau equally fitted her writing-desk; I mechanically opened it, and in a private drawer found several of Le Pelletier’s letters,” confided a husband to his doctor in “The Consultation,” an 1840 short story in The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music, and Romance. “The devil you did,” his interlocutor replied, “but permit me to ask how you came to pry about your wife’s writing-desk? eh!” Although the desk in this story from a women’s magazine is likely a portable writing slope with a secret drawer—unlike Bartow-Pell’s writing fire-screen desk—the idea of the personal nature of a lady’s writing desk applies to both.


This 1820s worktable at Bartow-Pell has a workbag underneath for sewing materials and a writing slope and compartments for writing supplies in the top drawer. “Work” refers to needlework (such as embroidery), which was also called “fancy work.” This contrasts to “plain sewing,” meaning tasks like darning socks.

Bartow-Pell’s ladies’ writing fire screen—one of several objects in our collection made for women’s activities—is a useful and elegant example of furniture designed for more than one function. In addition, it was made at a date when Maria Lorillard Bartow would have been selecting furnishings for the family’s new mansion, which was completed in 1842. Perhaps, like the Mannings, she even shopped at D. Phyfe & Son.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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The Pleasure of Your Company (but No Gaucheries, Please!): Dinner Parties in 19th-Century America

Let’s say that you wanted to give a dinner party in the 19th century. Or maybe you were invited to one. What were these dinners like? And how did you avoid making ghastly faux pas?

BPMM dining table setting for fruit and nuts

The dining table at Bartow-Pell has been set for the fruit and nut course. “The . . . general custom is to remove the cloth before dessert,” wrote Mrs. William Parkes in the 1829 American edition of Domestic Duties. Larger dinner parties at the Bartow mansion would have been held in one of the double parlors.

A selection of at least 32 kinds of wine was offered at John Hunter’s sumptuous dinner for his friend President Martin Van Buren on July 10, 1839. The lavish event for about 24 guests took place on Hunter’s private island in Long Island Sound and was given in honor of the president during his summer tour of New York. A multi-course menu—in French, of course—included dishes served at Van Buren’s state dinners in Washington, such as potage de tortue (turtle soup); saumon, sauce d’anchois (salmon in anchovy sauce); calf brains au suprême; and gelée au champagne rosé, all served on “gold and silver plate.”

By five o’clock the whole of the company arrived and were ushered into the drawing room; the ladies discussed fashion and dresses, and parties and soirées, and music, and poetry, and painting, and wisely eschewed dirty, trashy politics. The gentlemen very wisely listened to the ladies, and a few strolled round the room to admire the paintings. [John Hunter had a well-known and extensive collection of Old Masters.] . . . About six o’clock the dinner was on the table.A Day with His Democratic Majesty amongst the Old Noblesse,” Morning Herald (New York), July 12, 1839

Dinner Dress, 1839

Dinner Dress, 1839. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. This British fashion plate illustrates a stylish dinner dress from 1839. “Take off your gloves and put them in your lap, under the napkin,” Mrs. John Farrar reminded young ladies in 1837.

The extravagant private affair was unabashedly regal. And Hunter’s country estate—which was modeled on those of the British aristocracy—was the perfect setting for entertaining Van Buren, “His Republican Highness,” as the Herald reporter called him. The neighbors would have discussed it all around their own dining tables, including Robert and Maria Bartow, who lived a mere half-mile from Hunter Island. It wasn’t every day that people entertained a head of state at their home. Obviously, not all dinner parties were over the top, like this one, which was not unlike dining at Buckingham Palace.

Hunter Mansion 1882

John Hunter mansion, 1882. Albumen print. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York. The mansion—which stood on a private island in what is today Pelham Bay Park—was the setting for a dinner in honor of President Martin Van Buren on July 10, 1839. According to the Morning Herald, the dwelling was on a summit and had “a glorious view of Long Island Sound. A sloping lawn of great beauty, interspersed with flower borders, leads from the east front steps to the water’s edge.” The building was demolished in the 1930s, when Robert Moses was New York City Parks Commissioner. Today, a forest of oak trees covers the former site of the 19th-century mansion, lawns, and gardens, while birdsong and the quiet of nature have replaced dinner-party chatter.

Nineteenth-century American etiquette guides agree that one reason for a dinner party was to honor a person or an occasion.

Sometimes it is the birthday of the honored guest, the return of a bridal party, a reentrance into society after an illness, or following a sorrowful retirement from gayety; or it may be the celebration of an achievement, literary, artistic, political, or financial. Social Etiquette of New York (1880)

In planning a dinner, the first thing that the hosts had to do was decide on the guest list. “Those invited should be of the same standing in society,” writes John H. Young in Our Deportment (1882). “Good talkers are invaluable at a dinner party—people who have fresh ideas and plenty of warm words to clothe them in; but good listeners are equally invaluable.” In the Ladies’ Book of Etiquette (1872), Florence Hartley agrees that good conversation is an absolute must. “Conversation will be the sole entertainment for several hours, and if your guests are not well chosen, your dinner, no matter how perfect or costly the viands, will prove a failure.”

George Cruikshank, The Fall of the Leaf, Comic Almanac, 1845

George Cruikshank (British, 1792–1878). The Fall of the Leaf. Illustration from The Comic Almanack for 1845. Depictions of waterfalls line the walls in this satirical scene of a dinner-party disaster prompted by the collapse of a table leaf. A copy of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire has fallen on the floor, providing a sharp comment on the excesses of dinner parties.

The number of guests varied, “but certainly more than ten or twelve in number is not desirable,” Mrs. William Parkes instructs in the American edition of Domestic Duties, or Instructions to Young Married Ladies (1831). The numbers should allow “all the guests to engage in a common conversation,” Florence Hartley advises. And the author of The Habits of Good Society (1872) writes that “there is another reason for limiting the number, namely, that to give a good dinner, your means, your establishment, your dining-room, the capacities of the table, and so forth, must all be taken into consideration. . . . One cook, for instance, cannot serve up properly for more than a dozen people; three men cannot wait properly on more than ten.” A favorite rule of thumb in the 19th century was that guests should number “neither less than the graces, nor more than the muses.” Nevertheless, some dinners accommodated larger numbers of guests, such as the two dozen at John Hunter’s party.

Dinner invitation, 1882

Dinner invitation form from Our Deportment, 1882. “The invitations should be written on small note paper, which may have the initial letter or monogram stamped upon it, but good taste forbids anything more.”

The next step was to prepare the invitations. “Cards for a dinner party should be issued a fortnight, three weeks, or even a month beforehand,” Mrs. Parkes writes. However, Sarah Annie Frost notes in her Laws and By-Laws of American Society (1869) that “for a small company, and when gayety is not at its height, a week’s notice is sufficient.” “Printed cards of invitation are not en règle,” she adds, “excepting for public occasions. A small note paper is the only appropriate one, and may have the initial letter or monogram stamped upon it, and the envelope. Any more fanciful decoration is in excessively bad taste.” On the other hand, in 1880, Social Etiquette of New York offers another option: “It is the customary style of those who give frequent dinner-parties to order their cards engraved with a blank left for the written insertion of the name of the guests” and for the date. The author also includes the following advice (take note, social climbers of New York!):

Until very recently, the initials R. S. V. P. (Répondez s’il vous plait) have been engraved upon all formal cards, but they are less and less frequently seen. To thus ask, or even remind, a lady or gentleman that an invitation should be answered is, to say the least, a faint reproach upon their breeding. All refined people who are accustomed to the best social forms are fully aware that it would be an unpardonable negligence to omit replying to such an invitation for a single day.

The hard work was now up to the servants, under the direction of the lady of the house. “The preparations for a dinner party should be commenced the day before. The waiter should have a bill of fare given to him in time, that he may know what arrangements to make,” Eliza Leslie advises in her 1840 Lady’s House-Book. (The cook, of course, would have started to prepare days before.) In 1827, Robert Roberts—an African-American butler in Boston—writes in The House Servant’s Directory that “there is not any part of a servant’s business that requires greater attention and systematical neatness, than setting out his dinner table.” He goes on to discuss in precise detail how to set the table, lay out the sideboard and side table, and serve at the dinner. The sideboard, he reminds us, is where “splendid and costly articles” are to be “seen and set out to the best advantage,” where “your glasses should form a crescent, or half circle, as this looks most sublime.” Announce dinner with “a graceful motion of your head,” he suggests.

The Modern Dinner-Table, Sherwood Frontispiece

The Modern Dinner-Table. Frontispiece to Manners and Social Usages by Mrs. John Sherwood, 1887. “The service is à la Russe; that is, everything is handed by the servants. Nothing is seen on the table except the wines (and only a few of these), the bon-bons, and the fruit. No greasy dishes are allowed.”

In Our Deportment, John H. Young describes the ideal table of 1882:

A snow-white cloth of the finest damask, beautiful china, glistening or finely engraved glass, and polished plate are considered essential to a grand dinner. Choice flowers, ferns and mosses tastefully arranged, add much to the beauty of the table. A salt-cellar should be within the reach of every guest. Napkins should be folded square and placed with a roll of bread upon each plate. . . . An epergne, or a low dish of flowers, graces the center.

By 1869, place cards were becoming popular, according to Sarah Annie Frost.

Dinner dress, 1884–86

Dinner dress, 1884–86. Silk. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. J. Randall Creel, 1963. In Henry James’s novel Washington Square (1880), Catherine Sloper wears a red satin gown to her father’s dinner party.

The day of the party finally arrives. “The lady of the house should be in her drawing-room, ready to receive her guests, ten or fifteen minutes before the hour fixed,” states Frost’s Laws. Oh, and by the way, her husband “should also be present.” Dinner is announced by the chief waiter. “Before all the guests have arrived, the lady should have made her arrangements as to what gentleman and lady are to go in to dinner together.” The host should offer his left arm to his dinner partner. The “most distinguished” gentleman escorts the hostess, and the other paired couples follow to the dining room.

A Little Dinner in Bachelordom

A Little Dinner in Bachelordom. Illustration from “Luxurious Bachelordom,” in Munsey’s Magazine, January 1899. The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. The etiquette expert and author Mrs. John Sherwood describes a dinner party hosted by a blueblood bachelor in her 1882 novel about New York society and manners, A Transplanted Rose. As the young heroine is entertained by her dinner partner with gossip and “all the mots from the club,” she admires the table setting. “Real old blue, the best of Lowestoft, Worcester, and real Dresden, not bought yesterday either; fine Queen Anne silver . . . and beautiful rich damask. . . . And his wines! Each wine was a rarity, good, sound, and, if proper, ancient.”

Once seated, guests had better be up on the fine points of etiquette and how to avoid gaucheries. Here is a taste of (many) pointers from Frost’s 1869 treatise:

Never take a long, deep breath after you finish eating, as if the exercise had fatigued you.

Never, even with cheese, put your knife into your mouth.

When you are helped, begin to eat, without regard to those who have already, or have not yet, been helped. (Who knew?)

To affect an air of mystery or secrecy at a dinner-table is an insult to your companion and company assembled.

Any gentleman propounding a conundrum at the dinner-table deserves to be taken away by the police.

None but a low-bred clown will ever carry fruit or bons bons away from the table.

Never touch fruit with your fingers.

Henry Sargent, The Dinner Party, ca. 1821

Henry Sargent (American, 1770–1845). The Dinner Party, ca. 1821. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Gift of Mrs. Horatio Appleton Lamb in memory of Mr. and Mrs. Winthrop Sargent. Some dinner parties were for men only, like this one in Boston in 1821. Here, the table cloth has been removed for the final course, and the gentlemen enjoy fruit, nuts, and wine at the end of the repast. A married host for such a dinner might ask his wife to be on hand. “If the dinner is for the gentlemen guests alone, and the lady of house presides, her duties are over when she rises after dessert. . . . In this case, cigars may be served with the coffee,” declares Frost’s Laws and By-Laws of American Society (1869).

The butler Robert Roberts advises servants to ensure that the lamps and chandeliers in the drawing room are lighted in good time “as the ladies never stop long in the dining room after the dessert is over.” After this final course, Frost instructs hostesses to catch “the eye of the principal” of her lady friends. “An interchange of ocular telegraphing takes place, the hostess rises,” and the ladies “retire to the drawing-room and occupy themselves until the gentlemen again join them. It is well for the hostess to have a reserve force for this interval, of photographic albums, stereoscopes, annuals, new music, in fact, all the ammunition she can provide to make this often tedious interval pass pleasantly.” As for the gentlemen, those “who smoke light their cigars. . . . Their absence from the drawing room should not be a prolonged one,” declares Social Etiquette of New York. If coffee was not served at the table after dessert, it was offered to guests in the drawing room. “After coffee, any guest may take leave, and it is not expected that the latest lingerer will remain longer than two hours after dinner.”

John Hunter was a member of the “old noblesse” who “had chosen his guests most admirably” for the dinner party in honor of President Martin Van Buren in 1839. The ladies were “all remarkable for elegance of manners,” and the gentlemen had “superior sense and erudition” and “sound judgment.” Would you have passed the test?

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Fantasy at the Ball: Fancy Dress, Masquerades, and Tableaux Vivants in the 19th Century

Moon dress, details

Fancy-Dress Costume (details), ca. 1889. American. Wool, velvet, glass beads, and faux pearls. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mrs. Edward G. O’Brien TC2012.47a,b. This ivory dress trimmed with velvet half-moons probably included a headpiece and other accessories signifying its allegorical lunar theme.

It was the ball of the century. The red carpet in spades. The event was Mrs. William K. Vanderbilt’s fancy-dress ball on March 26, 1883, when 1,200 elite guests danced the night away in extravagant costumes at the Vanderbilts’ newly completed mock French chateau on Fifth Avenue and 52nd Street.

Isaac Bell

José Maria Mora (1849–1926). Isaac Bell (1846–1889) in costume for the Vanderbilts’ fancy-dress ball. Cabinet card, 1883. Museum of the City of New York, F2012.58.1275

The mansion dazzled “in a blaze of light,” and police officers were on hand to keep throngs of curious onlookers in order. Newspapers recounted every thrilling detail for their enraptured readers. “The Vanderbilt ball has agitated New-York society more than any social event that has occurred here in many years. . . . It has disturbed the sleep and occupied the waking hours of social butterflies, both male and female, for over six weeks.”

At 11 o’clock the maskers began to arrive in numbers. . . . Handsome women and dignified men were assisted from the carriage in their fanciful costumes. . . . Pretty and excited girls and young men who made desperate attempts to appear blasé were seen to descend and run up the steps into the brilliantly lighted hall. Club men who looked bored arrived . . . in hired cabs, and whole families drove up in elegant equipages with livried [sic] coachmen and footmen. New York Times, March 27, 1883

The fête was a spectacular Gilded Age triumph and a personal victory for the social-climbing Alva Vanderbilt.

Catharine Lorillard Kernochan

José Maria Mora. Mrs. James P. Kernochan, née Catherine Lorillard. Cabinet card, 1883. Museum of the City of New York, F2012.58.1300. Several members of the Lorillard family—relatives of Maria Lorillard Bartow—attended the Vanderbilt ball.

Another legendary ball was given by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Brevoort in 1840. “Dancing was kept up all night, mingled with eating, drinking, flirting, courting, sighing, and sweating,” the Morning Herald reported on March 2, 1840. Washington Irving was there, “in the dress of a Chargee,” accompanied by his nieces, who “looked very beautiful.” There was an “abundance of female domestics in attendance for the belles,” and “frizzeurs [friseurs, i.e., hairdressers], valets, etc., . . . for the beaux.” Tongues wagged when Matilda Barclay eloped from the ball in her mogul princess costume with Mr. Burgwyne of South Carolina. It was said that the couple—still dressed as the lovers in Thomas Moore’s bestselling 1817 narrative poem Lalla Rookh—were married before breakfast. This “beautiful belle . . . made havoc with many hearts at the Ball . . . and is now playing the fancy dress character of a married lady,” the Herald tattled with a sarcastic twist. The scandalous episode cast a moral shadow over society’s love affair with costume balls.

William Etty, Preparing for a Fancy Dress Ball

William Etty (English, 1787–1849). Preparing for a Fancy Dress Ball (Charlotte and Mary William-Wynn), 1833. Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of York Museums Trust,, public domain. William Etty also painted the portraits of the Bartows’ neighbors Anne Jay and Robert Bolton when they lived in England.

Public balls and subscription balls were alternatives to parties held in private homes. For example, fancy-dress balls sometimes took place at summer resorts and mineral-spring spas. On August 5, 1851, the New York Herald published “The Grand Costume Ball at Cape May,” which described “the first grand fashionable fête of the season at the watering places.” A Highland lassie, a jockey, the Lady of the Lake, “Night,” Charles I, a French fop, and a Swiss peasant girl were among the many costumed guests at the New Jersey seaside resort. A few party-poopers wore ball gowns. And on August 12, 1848, the Herald reported on a “Grand Fancy Dress Ball at Saratoga [Springs].” (Levin R. Marshall, a Bartow neighbor, was one of the organizers.) This festive gathering had a few rules. “No person shall be admitted without costume, except heads of families entering with their children or wards in costume. . . . Masks of every description excluded [more on that later]. Ladies and gentlemen are particularly requested to name their costumes to the Director.”


Man’s Fancy Dress Ensemble in Eighteenth-Century Style: Coat, Breeches, and Waistcoat, late 19th century. Satin, silk, sequins, ribbon, metallic trim, glass buttons. Philadelphia Museum of Art, Gift of the heirs of Charlotte Hope Binney Tyler Montgomery, 1996

Did people wear masks at 19th-century American fancy-dress balls? Not usually. They did, however, use their imagination (and money) to create lavish costumes based on historical, literary, multicultural, and allegorical figures. Newspaper accounts of the period describe these ensembles in great detail. We can also learn more in Fancy Dresses Described, or What to Wear at Fancy Balls by Ardern Holt. “But what are we to wear?” the author asks in the introduction. He provides the answer with several hundred costume ideas for “Fancy-ball-goers,” including Charlotte Corday, Queen of the Butterflies, Dresden China, Air, Photography, Pompeiian Lady, and Victor Hugo’s Esmeralda, to name a few. He also has tips for children, sisters, blondes and brunettes, elderly ladies, and hairdressing and powdering.

The Grand Ball at the Tuileries, Harper's Weekly, March 28, 1863

The Grand Ball at the Tuileries—The Bees Quadrille. Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, March 28, 1863. Fancy-dress balls often took place around Lent, a custom that can be traced to pre-Lenten Carnival celebrations in Italy. A number of Americans were guests at a pre-Lenten costume ball given by Empress Eugénie and Napoleon III in the Tuileries Palace in 1863. “At twelve o’clock several large bee-hives were carried in by villagers in the costumes of Watteau’s pictures, and from them issued a charming and graceful swarm of bees . . . dressed in golden corsage [bodice] and shining wings, and who at once proceeded to dance the quadrille.”

“A marked feature at most Fancy Balls is a specially-arranged quadrille [similar to a square dance or contredanse],” Ardern Holt wrote. At the Vanderbilt ball, there were six of these dances “comprising in all nearly a hundred ladies and gentlemen,” who moved “in a glittering processional pageant down the grand stairway and through the hall,” according to the Times. The ball began with the “Hobby-horse Quadrille,” which featured realistic horse costumes “attached to the waists of the wearers.” Gentlemen wore white satin vests and yellow satin knee breeches, and the ladies donned embroidered white satin skirts in the style of Louis XIV. Men and women also wore red hunting coats.

Masked Ball at the Opera

Masqued Ball at the Opera, Paris. Jerome Robbins Dance Division, The New York Public Library

Fancy-dress balls were not to be confused with masked balls. In general, masked events were considered degenerate, because partygoers were in disguise—or even anonymous—which was thought to encourage improper behavior or worse (although there were exceptions, such as celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Purim). In fact, masked balls were sometimes illegal in the United States. But it was a different story in Europe.

Paris, as everybody knows, abounds with masked balls during the brief season which intervenes between the commencement of the year and the first days of Lent. . . . It has been calculated that an experienced ball-goer might spend every night of January and February at a masked ball without going twice to the same place. “Musard and the Paris Masked Balls,” Harper’s Weekly, April 10, 1858

Tableaux vivants were another excuse to dress up in costume and indulge in some amateur theatricals. An 1884 edition of Webster’s dictionary defined a tableau vivant as “The representation of some scene by means of persons grouped in appropriate postures, and remaining silent and motionless.” These “living pictures” depicted scenes from art, history, literature, or other genres and were popular entertainment in parlors and at evening parties.


Unknown artist. Copy after Sir Joshua Reynolds (English, 1723–1792). Mrs. Lloyd, 18th century. Oil on canvas. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Bequest of Mabel Johnson Langhorne

In Edith Wharton’s Gilded Age novel The House of Mirth, “a dozen fashionable women” are asked to perform at an evening reception in tableaux vivants based on Old Master paintings. Wharton’s protagonist, the beautiful Lily Bart, “was in her element on such occasions” and played the part of Mrs. Lloyd in the portrait painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. “The unanimous ‘Oh!’ of the spectators was a tribute, not to the brush-work of Reynolds . . . but to the flesh and blood loveliness of Lily Bart.”

It was as though she had stepped, not out of, but into, Reynolds’s canvas. . . . Her pale draperies and the background of foliage against which she stood, served only to relieve the long dryad-like curves that swept upward from her poised foot to her lifted arm.

“That experienced connoisseur, Mr. Ned Van Alstyne,” remarked: “‘Deuced bold thing to show herself in that get-up; but, gad, there isn’t a break in the lines anywhere, and I suppose she wanted us to know it!’”

Tableaux were also performed in schools, where they were regarded as instructional. In 1865, for example, the Prospectus of the Vassar Female College noted that “under proper instruction, [tableaux may] be made to conduce to far higher ends than those of mere amusement.” How-to books such as School and Parlor Tableaux, Suitable for Schools, the Drawing-room, Church Entertainments, etc. (1879) provided suggestions for costumes and tips on staging and lighting.

Assisted by His Daughters, Mr. Pipp, 1899

Charles Dana Gibson (1867–1944). Assisted by His Daughters: Mr. Pipp Enters into the Spirit of the Paris Carnival, 1899

Why was dressing up in costumes a popular pastime? In the 19th century, there was an enormous interest in history, which was expressed through literature, art, architecture, collecting, and even fashion. This included dressing in historical fancy dress. Or rather, interpretations of historical dress. In addition, advances in the publishing industry and education meant that people read a lot more—works of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry—on all kinds of subjects. Furthermore, modern transportation networks increased travel and global awareness. All of these things sparked people’s imaginations when the time came to give a party or choose a costume. Hostesses like Mrs. Vanderbilt took advantage of the novelty of fancy-dress balls to enhance their social status.

Katharine Graham and Truman Capote

Host of the Year. Photograph by Mel Finkelstein for the World Journal Tribune. Katharine Graham and Truman Capote at the Black and White Ball, Plaza Hotel, New York City, November 28, 1966. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

In the 20th century, the legacy of costume balls lived on in Truman Capote’s fabled Black and White Ball. The glamorous masked party was held in the Grand Ballroom at the Plaza Hotel—a few blocks away from the site of the 1883 Vanderbilt ball—on November 28, 1966, in honor of Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham. But this time, revelers wore masks. Capote’s black-and-white dress code was inspired by Cecil Beaton’s costumes in the Ascot scenes of the motion picture My Fair Lady (1964). Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow were there. So were some of the Vanderbilts, the poet Marianne Moore, Claudette Colbert, William F. Buckley, and a young Candice Bergen, who wore a fur-trimmed strapless black velvet gown and a bunny mask. They joined “540 diplomats, politicians, scientists, painters, writers, composers, actors, producers, dress designers, social figures, tycoons, and what Mr. Capote called ‘international types, lots of beautiful women and ravishing little things,’” the New York Times reported.

These magical evenings were full of fantasy, but eventually it was time to call it a night (or make that, call it a morning).

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Fit for a Lord of the Manor: A Tester Bedstead Attributed to Duncan Phyfe

On November 29, 1955, Justine Bayard Erving—an unmarried descendent of the Van Rensselaer lords of the manor—died in a New York nursing home at the age of 73. The following year, a classical tester bedstead—later attributed to the influential cabinetmaker Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854)—was given to Bartow-Pell from her estate. Did it once belong to the donor’s great-grandparents Stephen Van Rensselaer III, the “last patroon” of Rensselaerswyck, and his wife Cornelia Paterson?


Attributed to Duncan Phyfe (1770–1854). Bedstead, ca. 1815–25. Mahogany. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Justine Bayard Erving, 1956.05

The Van Rensselaers were early Dutch settlers in New York and powerful landowners in the Albany area whose vast estate was known as Rensselaerswyck. The family amassed enormous wealth through a feudal-based system overseen by the patroon (the Dutch term for lord of the manor). The Van Rensselaers intermarried with other dynastic New York families such as the Schuylers, Bayards, Livingstons, and Van Cortlandts.

Stephen Van Rensselaer III

John Wesley Jarvis (1780–1840). Stephen Van Rensselaer III, ca. 1825–35. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. This portrait was owned by the sitter’s great-granddaughter Justine Bayard Erving. She also inherited Portrait of a Child as Cupid: William Paterson Van Rensselaer Jr., 1836–37, which she donated to the Albany Institute of History & Art.

Stephen Van Rensselaer III (1764–1839) was a baby when his father began construction on a grand new manor house near the Hudson River in what is now the city of Albany. When the patroon died prematurely in 1769, his young son inherited the newly completed mansion, along with the entire estate. After the death of Stephen Van Rensselaer III in 1839, the house was extensively remodeled in the early 1840s by the architect Richard Upjohn. But in 1893, when railroad tracks and industrialization encroached on the property, the building was taken apart and partially reassembled at Williams College, where it housed a fraternity, among other things, until it was torn down for good in 1973. Today, the original entrance hall survives as a period room in the American Wing of the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Van Rensselaer manor house entry hall

Woodwork and Wallpaper from the Great Hall of Van Rensselaer Manor House, 1765–69. Made in Albany, New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. William Bayard Van Rensselaer, in memory of her husband, 1928

Justine Bayard Erving

Justine Bayard Erving (1881–1955) in 1924

At the time of her death, Justine Bayard Erving (1881–1955), the bedstead’s donor, was a recent past president of the International Garden Club (IGC)—now the Bartow-Pell Conservancy—the organization that maintained the Bartow mansion as a historic house museum. (It is interesting to note that her relative Florence Van Rensselaer [1865–1957], who wrote a family history, served as IGC president during most of the 1940s.)

Because the details of the donor’s genealogy were not recorded when the bedstead was given to Bartow-Pell, the Van Rensselaer connection was forgotten until recently, when BPMM board member and Curatorial Committee Chairperson Carswell Rush Berlin—an expert in classical decorative arts who suspected that the bedstead was likely made by Phyfe— looked into Justine Bayard Erving’s ancestry. The provenance is particularly significant because her ancestor Stephen Van Rensselaer III was a patron of Phyfe’s. We know, for example that in 1811, Stephen III commissioned a library chair from the cabinetmaker. In addition, a portrait of him by the American painter John Wesley Jarvis (1780–1840) was also owned by Justine Bayard Erving at the time of her death and has a similar provenance. Carswell Berlin notes, however, that “while we know that Stephen III patronized Phyfe, the bed could also have come in through his wife’s family (the Patersons) or the family of their son’s wife, Sarah Bayard Roger, who we also know were Phyfe clients. The quality of the bed indicates the caliber of its maker, narrowing the possibilities to Phyfe and only a tiny group of his contemporaries, and the provenance linking the bed to such important families known to have patronized Phyfe strongly reinforces the likelihood that Phyfe was the maker, so that an attribution can be made with some confidence.”

Bartow-Pell’s bedstead dates from about 1815 to 1825 and is very similar to one that Nancy McClelland identifies in her book Duncan Phyfe and the English Regency (1939) as descending in the family of Duncan Phyfe’s daughter Eliza Phyfe Vail (1801–1890). In Duncan Phyfe: Master Cabinetmaker in New York, Peter Kenny writes: “However, based on the style of its ornament, as well as some tangential documentation, it seems just as likely that it was originally made for her parents.” Both bedsteads feature highly figured mahogany footboards with elaborate turned and carved posts consisting of leaves, rope spirals, and carved paw feet. However, the Phyfe family bedstead (illustrated on p. 225 of Kenny’s book) is more richly ornamented and has small Doric columns with gilded brass capitals on the footboard and carving on all four posts. (Headposts on tester bedsteads were usually plain because they were covered by bed hangings.) It makes sense that Phyfe would add special touches to a piece that he made for his own family. The late Berry Tracy, a curator in the American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum, gave a lecture at Bartow-Pell in 1966 and was the first scholar to attribute our bedstead to Duncan Phyfe.

The Phyfe and Van Rensselaer family bedsteads were made in a traditional English four-post form. The Scottish-born Phyfe presumably chose this style to suit himself and his wife, Rachel. As for Stephen Van Rensselaer III, his character was described as “conservative” by his biographer Daniel B. Barnard in 1839. “He was temperate in all things; in his personal indulgencies; in his personal predilections or prejudices; . . . in his new opinions or feelings, whenever he acquired them; in his love of the world.” It makes sense that his household furnishings would be traditional, even a tad old-fashioned.

Sheraton Bed

Thomas Sheraton (1751–1806). Design for a Bed. Hand-colored engraving from The Cabinet Dictionary, 1803. Courtesy of Carswell Rush Berlin, Inc., New York City

Such high-post bedsteads—which follow the Anglo-American aesthetic of designers such as Thomas Sheraton (1751–1806)—contrast with contemporaneous “French” beds, which were modeled on ancient Roman day beds with scrolled ends. These were meant to be viewed from the side with the other side against a wall, like the one in Bartow-Pell’s collection that was made in New York City by Phyfe’s competitor Charles-Honoré Lannuier (1779–1819) between 1812 and 1819 for the merchant Isaac Bell and his wife, Mary Ellis Bell. Lannuier was a sophisticated interpreter of the Greco-Roman style, which had been popular in France since the French Revolution and was a powerful symbol of the ancient democratic ideals that were embraced by the new French and American republics. In fact, much attention has been given to a superb French bedstead made by Lannuier for Stephen Van Rensselaer III’s son Stephen IV (1789–1868) and his wife, Harriet Bayard (1799–1875)—also in the French (or “Grecian”) taste—which is now in the Albany Institute of History & Art.


Charles-Honoré Lannuier. French Bedstead, 1812–19. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Henry S. Peltz and Mary Nevius, 1985.06. Photo: Richard Warren

Stephen Van Rensselaer III, 1797

Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (1770–1852). Stephen Van Rensselaer III, 1797. Engraving on paper. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. The prolific French émigré portraitist Saint-Mémin engraved this profile of Stephen Van Rensselaer III in 1797. That same year, the artist captured the likeness of Isaac Bell, who was a client of both Phyfe and Lannuier (from whom Bell commissioned the superb French bedstead now at Bartow-Pell).

Phyfe and Lannuier vied for many of the same clients and were important leaders of a large cabinetmaking industry in New York City. Their patrons—who lived all along the East Coast—consisted of both landowning families and members of a burgeoning merchant class who were eager to furnish their houses with expensive objects of the highest quality, often as a means to display their wealth and taste. The two cabinetmakers initially produced pieces in opposing English and French styles but later influenced each other’s work. “Sheraton’s second book of designs, The Cabinet Dictionary (1803), and Thomas Hope’s Household Furniture (1807) introduce the new Grecian styles coming out of France. However, some clients preferred the more traditional English style (the style they were used to), and some the newer French or Grecian style,” notes Carswell Berlin. “The Phyfe bed represents Robert Adam’s neo-classicism and the Lannuier bed represents archaeological classicism. Thomas Hope, the most influential designer and arbiter of taste of the English Regency after the King himself, represented a rejection of Adam classicism in England, but not everyone adopted the Grecian style. Sheraton style continued to be influential for at least twenty years.” (Click here to see Berlin’s article on the design sources of American classical furniture.)

Bed Curtains

Illustration from An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy by Thomas Webster and Mrs. Parkes (American edition, 1845). “Bed-curtains are made of various materials, as silk, damask, moreen, chints [sic], or dimity. . . . Chints [sic] is generally preferred, being more easily washed; and curtains of it are usually lined with a thin glazed cotton, generally dyed plain.”

Bed hangings were among the most expensive items in a well-to-do household. For example, four-post bedsteads required “a top, a back, two head curtains, two foot curtains, one top outer and one top inner valance, one bottom valance, and sometimes extra drapery laid on the back of the bed,” according to The Workwoman’s Guide (1840). Sumptuous bed draperies required many yards of fine fabric. Catharine Beecher advised readers of A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1841): “High-post bedsteads are best, as it is often important to hang . . . curtains to protect from cold currents of air. It is in good taste to have the [bed] curtains, bedquilt, valance, and window-curtains of similar materials.” In the 1828 American edition of Domestic Duties, or Instructions to Young Married Ladies, Mrs. William Parkes wrote that “bed-hangings are now, generally, either of moreen [a strong cotton or wool fabric], or of chintz lined with coloured calico. Moreen is very serviceable, and is well suited to cold situations; it requires no lining, and therefore, is less expensive than chintz, though not so pretty.” Bartow-Pell’s reproduction bed hangings are made of glazed cotton chintz in the Oriole pattern from Brunschwig & Fils, a historic design based on an example in the collection of the Winterthur Museum.

Clarina's Chamber

According to the custom of the period, Bartow-Pell’s bed hangings and window treatments are made of the same fabric. “In general, the material and colour of window curtains should be the same as that of other drapery in the room; for example, as . . . bed curtains in bed-rooms.” John Claudius Loudon, 1835

Our tester bedstead has been slumbering quietly in an upstairs bedchamber at the museum since 1956. But it has a story to tell—one with ties to the Van Rensselaer family and to an important furniture maker. Besides, how fitting that such an object would end up at Bartow-Pell, a property that once belonged to another legendary family, the Pells—the lords of the manor of Pelham—and their descendent Robert Bartow.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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