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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Reimagined: A 19th-Century American Apple Orchard

Proposed view of BPMM orchard

Proposed view of visitors enjoying Bartow-Pell’s new orchard. Mark K. Morrison Landscape Architecture PC, Ms. Erica Koh, Landscape Designer

Americans loved apple orchards in the 19th century (and we still do!). Apple blossoms in the spring, apple picking in the fall, cider making, and apples served every which way have all helped to make the American apple orchard a cultural phenomenon. It’s no wonder that Robert and Maria Bartow had an orchard on their country estate. Now, Bartow-Pell has a new one, reimagined for the 21st century.

“No words can describe the beauty of an American apple-orchard,” wrote the Bartows’ neighbor James Bolton in his delightful 1859 memoir Brook Farm: The Amusing and Memorable of American Country Life. “The trees, some old and gnarled, some young and dandified, stood in rows as straight as a street.” The Bolton family had two orchards: “Each had its share of hill and valley, each its home and distant landscape; the nearest overlooked the farmhouse and buildings, the furthest, the river meadows.”

Bartow-Pell’s new orchard is situated in a woodland clearing between the mansion and Bartow Creek. The neatly planted rows recall the estate’s 19th-century orchard, which bordered the road on the north side and was catty-cornered from the new one. (Long-term changes in the landscape required planting the trees in a different location.)

Detail of Bartow estate, 1885

William J. Haskins and Otto S. Jaffe. 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. This map detail shows the Bartow estate in 1885. The orchard, with its neat rows of trees, can be seen on the left near the road. That area is now woodland, and today’s orchard has been planted on the other side of the property near Bartow Creek. Click here to see the full map and the locations of nearby orchards.

We can see a snapshot of orchards belonging to the Bartow family and their neighbors in 1885 on a map in the New York Public Library. Twenty years later—after the City of New York had converted the former private estates into parkland—another map shows that the local orchards were starting to disappear. Eventually, none were left.

New trees

Bartow-Pell’s newly planted orchard

In spring 2019, landscape architect Mark K. Morrison—who oversaw Bartow-Pell’s formal garden restoration in 2013—planted thirteen apple trees and two pear trees. Heirloom varieties are Malus Stayman and Malus Baldwin apples and Bartlett (or Williams’ Bon Chrétien) pears. Other cultivars were selected for a number of reasons, including availability, flavor, and cost, so that the project would stay within budget. “We chose the Granny Smith (first grown in Australia in 1868) because it’s well known for making pies,” explains Morrison. “The Rome is a great cooking apple, which originated in Rome township, Ohio, in the early 19th century, and the Liberty is a hybrid apple developed in New York State.” Suncrisp, Mutsu, and Honeycrisp apples—which were all introduced in the 20th century—round out the group. “These three varieties are absolutely delicious eating apples and are more readily available if someone wants to purchase a tree for their own property.” Some trees will bear fruit this year.

Martin Johnson Heade, Hummingbird and Apple Blossoms

Martin Johnson Heade (American, 1819–1904) Hummingbird and Apple Blossoms, 1875. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. J. Augustus Barnard, 1979. The Bartows’ neighbor James Bolton, in a description of his family’s blossom-covered orchard, wrote: “Occasionally lovely little humming-birds, with their white bosoms and emerald necks, might be seen; now darting hither and thither quick as lightning; now hovering, spirit-like, whilst they thrust their long tongues into the flower cup; now resting an instant on a twig, and uttering a sharp, whisking kind of squeak.”

Apple blossoms transform orchards into a sensory feast. “About the middle of May they [the apple trees] were in full blossom,” James Bolton recalled. “We compared them to a large bridal party promenading whilst the bells rang merry peals; or a crowd of white-dressed girls dancing on the village green. Then every sniff of air was heavy with honied odors.” Naturally, spring orchards were the perfect setting for romance. The blooms also inspired poetry, prose, and songs in the 19th century, when Americans enjoyed works such as Apple Blossoms: A Novel (1886), poems like “Apple-Blossom Time” (1878), and songs like “Down among the Apple Blossoms” (1872).

NY Daily Tribune 3.6.1851

Two Farms for Sale. Advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune, March 6, 1851. Orchards were on the wish list of every would-be farm purchaser. The sellers of these farms in Eastchester, New York, make sure to mention that the properties include “large apple orchards in full bearing.”

During fall apple-picking season in October 1884, gossipmongers thrilled when the Bartow orchard apparently played a part in a peculiar episode that involved Mary Grote, a young German servant, “about 20 years of age,” who went missing from a nearby farm and was later found unharmed in a hayloft. The New York Times followed the story:

Yesterday morning she went to the apple orchard, three-quarters of a mile from the farmhouse and across the track of the Harlem River branch of the New-Haven Railroad, with Ben, a son of Mr. May, and a farm hand named George. They all returned to the house at noon with a load of apples. After dinner Mary . . . left, as all supposed, for the orchard. . . . When the boys reached the orchard . . . Mary was not there. It was thought that she had gone for chestnuts, but when the boys returned to the house at dusk, with their fragrant load, she was not there.

Apple basket and apple pickers

Vintage apple basket full of fruit pickers. From the private collection of Mark K. Morrison

Pomologists have recorded that in the 19th century there were thousands of North American apple varieties that came in many sizes, shapes, and colors. However, only a fraction of those are grown today. A favorite 19th-century apple—the Newtown Pippin—has become somewhat hard to find, but in 1845, it was a different story. “The American or Newtown Pippin is now pretty generally admitted to be the finest apple in the world,” wrote Andrew Jackson Downing in The Fruits and Fruit Trees of America. “On the Hudson, thousands of barrels of the fairest and richest Newtown pippins are constantly produced.” This variety was first grown during Colonial times in Newtown—now Elmhurst—in present-day Queens and was highly valued for its delectable flavor. Even Queen Victoria was a big fan. However, as unblemished fruit has become more important to producers and consumers, Pippins—with skin that is prone to russeting—have been largely pushed aside for varieties such as Granny Smith.


John George Brown (born England 1831–died New York 1913). The Cider Mill, 1880. Oil on canvas. Terra Foundation for American Art, Daniel J. Terra Collection, 1992.19

New York State has long been known for its hard cider, which was especially popular with the working classes in the 19th century and is now making a resurgence. (Like today, it was also used to make cider vinegar.) Not surprisingly, the temperance movement disapproved. “Intemperance is a dreadful evil, and even wine and cider are dangerous,” warns a character in Hard Cider: A Temperance Sketch (1880). Sweet (non-alcoholic) cider was even considered taboo by some followers of the movement because “it is impossible to tell the exact point when fermentation commences,” cautioned one of the essayists in the Centennial Temperance Volume (1876). They didn’t take any chances, did they?

Currier and Ives, Apples

Currier & Ives. Apples, 1868. Lithograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Apples appeared on the family table in many different forms. For example, dessert apples—such as the Newtown Pippin—were often enjoyed as fresh fruit at the end of a meal. According to Andrew Jackson Downing, “The finest sorts [of apples] are much esteemed for the dessert. . . . As the earliest sorts ripen about the last of June, and the latest can be preserved until that season, it may be considered as a fruit in perfection the whole year.”  He went on: “Besides its merits for the dessert, the value of the apple is still greater for the kitchen, and in sauces, pies, tarts, preserves, and jellies, and roasted and boiled, this fruit is the constant and invaluable resource of the kitchen.” Period cookbooks abound with “receipts” for apple dumplings, apple jelly, apple pancakes, apple fool, apple fritters, pork apple pie, apple à la Turque, and on and on.

“An apple a day keeps the doctor away,” runs the old adage. And, indeed, the health benefits of the apple were highly valued in the 19th century. A. J. Downing got right to the point: “It is exceedingly wholesome, and, medicinally, is considered cooling, and laxative, and useful in all inflammatory diseases.” In December 1860, the Health Department column in Arthur’s Home Magazine encouraged families to eat apples:

If taken freely at breakfast with coarse bread and butter . . . it has an admirable effect on the general system . . . more effectually than the most approved medicines. If families could be induced to substitute the apple, sound, ripe, and luscious, for the pies, cakes, candies, and other sweetmeats with which their children are too often indiscreetly stuffed, there would be a diminution in the sum total of doctors’ bills in a single year, sufficient to lay in a stock of this delicious fruit for a whole season’s use.

The columnist mused, “Why every farmer in the nation has not an apple-orchard where the trees will grow at all, is one of the mysteries.”

Cecropia moth

Cecropia Emperor Moth. Illustration from Insects Injurious to Fruits by William Saunders (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott & Co., 1883). The cecropia moth is the largest in North America, and its eggs are found on the leaves and stems of various plants, including apple trees. The author of this comprehensive reference work notes that information for fruit growers on how to deal with harmful pests was scattered amongst “a large number of voluminous State and Departmental reports and books on scientific entomology” before the publication of his book, which is illustrated with 440 wood engravings.

People were not the only ones to enjoy eating apples. Downing wrote:

The recent practice of fattening hogs, horses, and other animals upon sweet apples accounts for the much greater number of varieties. . . . In fact, so excellent has the saccharine matter of the apple been found for this purpose, that whole orchards of sweet apples are frequently planted here for the purposes of fattening swine and cattle, which are allowed to run at large in them (1855).

James Bolton paints a vivid picture of a barnyard dash with apples as the trophy. “As the fruit ripens, the pigs are turned in to eat up the windfalls. The geese and turkeys, too, are fond of a peck at them. . . . When an apple drops, ears are pricked, and they race off, pigs, geese and turkeys, pell-mell towards the spot. The first in has the prize—that is, if he can keep it.”

We are very excited about sharing our 21st-century orchard with Bartow-Pell’s visitors. What better way to promote sustainability, healthy eating, history, and the beauty of nature than through the simple pleasures of the orchard?

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Alice Vaughan-Williams Martineau: An Englishwoman’s Crusade to Cultivate American Gardeners

Phlox and Hollyhock

Margaret Waterfield, illustrator (1860–1950). Phlox and Hollyhock at Milton Court, Dorking. Illustration from The Herbaceous Garden by Alice Martineau (1913). The author used the term “herbaceous” in a loose sense to include “annual, biennial, and perennial plants . . . and boldly decide to include the best of everything in our border.”

On September 24, 1913, the British writer and garden designer Alice Martineau (ca. 1865–1956) set sail from Southampton for New York on the White Star Line’s legendary RMS Olympic, the enormous luxury ocean liner that was the sister ship of the ill-fated Titanic.

Mrs. Philip Martineau (as the press referred to her) was not well known in America, but she was traveling stateside to deliver a series of lectures on gardening to Yankee bluebloods. Furthermore, she had recently published The Herbaceous Garden—a book that was rooted in her experiences planning and planting her own gardens—which she wanted to promote to an American audience. The upper-class self-professed amateur had also been hired by her old friends John and Mary Beecher Longyear to design the gardens at their estate in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Mrs. Charles Frederick Hoffman Jr. in the Garden at Armsea Hall

William W. Ernst. Mrs. Charles Frederick Hoffman Jr. in the Garden at Armsea Hall, 1909 or later. The Preservation Society of Newport County. Zelia Hoffman dances around a fountain in her gardens.

Somewhere along the way, Martineau met Zelia (Mrs. Charles F.) Hoffman (1867–1929), a wealthy American Anglophile, society hostess, and gardening enthusiast, and suggested to Mrs. Hoffman that she form an organization in the United States modeled after Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society. Hoffman quickly embraced the idea, and in March 1914, only a few months after Martineau’s 1913 visit, the new International Garden Club was formed. Zelia Hoffman led the organization, which soon leased the old Bartow estate from the City of New York to use as its headquarters and embarked on an ambitious to-do list. In short order, they recruited an impressive membership roster that included Nicholas Murray Butler (the president of Columbia University who was the IGC’s honorary president) and names such as Astor, Pell, and Vanderbilt. In addition, successful fundraising paid for the white-shoe architectural firm Delano & Aldrich to restore and update the Bartow mansion and create a beautiful formal walled garden. The IGC also published a journal, formed a horticultural library, and organized flower shows and other public events. Let’s not forget that the early 20th century was a golden age for the creation of garden clubs, such as the Garden Club of America, which was founded in 1913. “There never was a time when interest in gardening was so enthusiastic and widespread as at present. The International Garden Club is the result of this enthusiasm, given direction by Mrs. Philip Martineau.” (The Evening Post [New York], May 8, 1914)

Bartow Mansion, Fall 1915

Frances Benjamin Johnston and Mattie Edwards Hewitt. Terrace Fountain, Bartow Mansion, International Garden Club, fall 1915. Hand-colored glass-lantern slide. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Johnston and Hewitt were well known for their photographs of architecture, historic buildings, and gardens. The two women ended their partnership in 1917 but continued to work independently.

Thanks to Martineau and Hoffman’s vision, Bartow-Pell was almost certainly saved from the wrecking ball in the 1930s, when Parks Commissioner Robert Moses ordered the demolition of the other remaining 19th-century country-estate mansions in Pelham Bay Park, which were in various states of disrepair. Today, Bartow-Pell is operated by the Bartow-Pell Conservancy and is a member of the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation’s Historic House Trust.

Frontispiece Herbaceous Garden

Isabel Forrest, illustrator. A Mixed Border in the Garden of the Hon. Mrs. Edward Lyttleton at Overstrand. Frontispiece to The Herbaceous Garden. “What an ugly name!,” Martineau exclaimed in Chapter XIII regarding the book’s title. “But would ‘My Perennial Garden,’ even if correct, sound any better, or ‘My Hardy Plant Garden’? So I must just leave it.”

Alice Margaret Vaughan-Williams Martineau was born in Wales around 1865 to Robert Vaughan-Williams and Sarah Jane Reid. Her father was a judge. In 1888, she married Philip Hubert Martineau (1862–1944), a solicitor and cricketer, and the couple had two sons. When her husband was knighted in 1933, she became Lady Alice. In the preface to The Herbaceous Gardener, Martineau wrote that she “grew up in a garden, and inherited doubtless the love for it.” She went on to write more books and articles on gardening, as well as several cookbooks (with wonderful titles such as Cantaloup to Cabbage and Caviare to Candy). Martineau, who moved in aristocratic circles, was also the author of Reminiscences of Hunting and Horses by a Fox-Hunting Woman and Roumania and Her Rulers. She had close ties to the Romanian royal family and dedicated The Secrets of Many Gardens to Romania’s Queen Marie, a granddaughter of Queen Victoria.

On September 21, 1913, the New York Times proclaimed: “Friend of Queen Coming as Gardener” to “give a course of drawing-room lectures.” Interestingly, Martineau was not the only foreigner to cross the Atlantic for speaking engagements in the heady days before the start of World War I. That same issue of the Times announced the arrival of the groundbreaking French couturier Paul Poiret (1879–1944)—known for his lampshade tunics, harem pantaloons, and hobble skirts—for an American lecture tour.

NY Tribune 9.21.1913

New-York Tribune, September 21, 1913. This is one of the newspaper headlines from Alice Martineau’s visit to the United States in the fall of 1913 when she was just starting her professional career but still considered herself an amateur.

“I have been in America twice on social visits. I am one Englishwoman who is simply in love with the country. I never hear the steamboat whistle but long for New York and the Hudson, where the air is like champagne,” gushed Martineau in the Times. But the feeling was not always mutual, at least after a controversial article entitled “Our Apathy to Gardens Astounds English Expert” appeared in the same newspaper on November 9, 1913.

But while she admits that a certain class in America is showing a really remarkable interest in gardens, she is even more impressed by the apparent apathy of the people in general. The almost total absence of cottage gardens astonishes her.

She went on to say that the “greatest mistake people make over here is in leaving things too much in the hands of the gardener,” accusing him of “atrocities” in the choice of flower colors, for example. Was Martineau merely a know-it-all aristo-dilettante? Or did she just need a lesson in tact? Maybe a bit of both, at least at the beginning of her professional career.

Martineau’s condescending—and ignorant—views ignited a tempest in a teapot and inspired snarky letters to the editor. Some American gardening experts bristled. For example, Martin C. Ebel, Secretary of the National Association of Gardeners, wrote: “This lady from abroad, with her mission to teach us, shows herself to be quite uninformed on American horticultural conditions.” He criticized her arrogance and lack of experience, complaining that she “comes to this country to undertake to advise against practical men whose experiences in gardening have been lifelong.” Some letters, however, praised the British visitor, such as one from “C.” of Tuxedo Park. Was this anonymous rebuttal penned by one of her society friends?

Mrs. Wharton in Her Garden

Mrs. Wharton in Her Garden (Sainte Claire du Chateau). Illustration from Gardening in Sunny Lands: The Riviera, California, Australia by Alice Martineau (1924). Introduction by Edith Wharton. In her foreword, the British author thanked her American friend: “Lastly, my special thanks are due to Mrs. Wharton, but for whose steady encouragement and practical help this book would never have been written.”

Although some American experts were offended by Martineau’s comments in the press in 1913, she had important connections in the gardening world. The influential British gardener and writer William Robinson (1838–1935), a proponent of the English cottage garden, was an important inspiration for Martineau and agreed to write an introduction to The Herbaceous Garden, which he did “with pleasure in the hope of helping the movement.” And the American writer Edith Wharton (1862–1937), a friend and fellow gardener, contributed an introduction to Martineau’s book Gardening in Sunny Lands (1924). Wharton wrote, “The author’s spoken counsels have already been so helpful in the making of my own garden that I feel sure my fellow-gardeners, and even those far more experienced than I, will welcome the appearance of such a book and find help in one or another of its stimulating suggestions.” At this time, Wharton was planting splendid gardens at Sainte-Claire du Château, the charming villa on the French Riviera that she was renting and would soon buy.

Roses at Armsea Hall, Newport

Frances Benjamin Johnston (1864–1952) and Mattie Edwards Hewitt (1869–1956). Sundial in Rose Garden at Armsea Hall, Charles Frederick Hoffman Jr. House, Narragansett Bay, Newport, Rhode Island, summer 1914. Hand-colored glass-lantern slide. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. In the summer of 1914, around the time when Alice Martineau visited Zelia Hoffman in Newport, the American photographers Johnston and Hewitt produced glass-lantern slides of Zelia’s renowned rose garden. Johnston later took pictures of Alice Martineau’s garden at Wellsbridge Cottage near Ascot.

In May 1914, Alice Martineau returned to the United States to give more lectures and plan more gardens for wealthy American clients. “Mrs. Philip Martineau, of Hurst Court, England, . . . intends to spread the garden gospel still further in her present tour of the country,” declared the New York Tribune on May 10 in “Women Are Gardeners on Own Estates: Bloomer-Clad They Supplant Gardeners.” The article included an interview with Martineau and buzz about the new International Garden Club and its impact. At the end of June, Alice paid a visit to her friend Zelia at the Hoffmans’ Newport estate, Armsea Hall, a superb Beaux Arts mansion with spectacular gardens on Narragansett Bay.

Wellsbridge Cottage

Frances Benjamin Johnston. Garden Doorway, Wellsbridge Cottage, Philip Hubert Martineau House, Wellsbridge (near Ascot), England, summer 1925. Hand-colored glass-lantern slide. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Alice Martineau died in London at the age of ninety in 1956. Her bestselling book was her first one, The Herbaceous Garden, which ran into multiple editions in Britain and America but is now out of print. Thanks to the idea she planted with Zelia Hoffman, one of her most lasting legacies is still flourishing—the historic house and gardens at Bartow-Pell.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Hold Your Horses: Bartow-Pell’s Carriage House

Danger! Keep Out! These were the ominous signs on a dilapidated outbuilding at Bartow-Pell in the 1980s. More than a century earlier, however, the air would have resonated with the clip-clop of horse shoes, an occasional whinny, and the smell of hay and manure.

Carriage House

Bartow-Pell’s restored carriage house includes a rebuilt cupola and chimney, as well as an exterior wooden platform for transferring hay from a wagon to the loft. The building’s shutters have also been restored. “By darkening the stable they encourage a fatigued horse to rest through the day; they keep out the flies in the hot days of summer; and in winter they help to keep the stable warm.” John Stewart, Stable Economy (American edition, 1845)

This once-handsome carriage house and stable had been designed according to the best practices of the period at some point between 1836 and 1842. But years of neglect had turned it into a hazardous, unsound ruin. Luckily, the building was rescued by some generous preservation-minded donors and restored in 1992 by Jan Hird Pokorny Associates.

Carriage house before restoration

The carriage house before it was restored in 1992

Detail of Bartow estate, 1885

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. This map detail shows the Bartow estate in 1885. It includes an oval carriage drive—lined by an allée of trees—that circles up to the house from the public road. A side drive leads from the circle to the carriage house. We can also see the location of a barn (behind the carriage house), an orchard (near the road), and a dock extending into Long Island Sound. Smaller outbuildings are probably not shown.

In the 19th century, the Bartow family’s country seat was about 16 miles from New York City in an area that is now Pelham Bay Park in the Bronx. The 233-acre estate boasted a fine stone mansion and a stone carriage house and stable, along with a farm and a number of now-lost outbuildings. A detailed map from 1885 provides a view of the estate a few years before it before it became the property of New York City.

The carriage house was visible from the main house, so its appearance mattered. “Buildings of this sort are usually needed much nearer the dwelling than it is convenient or desirable . . . and for this reason they should have a better finish and a greater neatness of appearance,” advised J. J. Thomas in The Illustrated Annual Register of Rural Affairs (1856). Robert Bartow and his architect clearly agreed. Several common design features link the mansion and its carriage house: both are made of stone and have hipped roofs, symmetrical façades, and rooftop ventilation. The elegant mansion, however, has fine finishes such as dressed (cut and shaped) stone, a dentil cornice, ornamental ironwork, and classical niches. In contrast, the simply designed carriage house is constructed from coarse stonework and enlivened merely by some attractive brickwork around the front door and windows.

Carriage House, side view

Bartow-Pell’s “hillside barn” was built into an artificial slope. The basement level housed livestock and a cistern. This side view shows how the building looked sometime in the 20th century after many years of neglect.

Side hill barn

J. J. Thomas. Side-Hill Barn in the Usual Form. The Illustrated Annual Register of Rural Affairs, 1856. Hillside barns were popular choices in the 19th century, partly because their footprint was relatively small.

Bartow-Pell’s carriage house and stable represent a classic 19th-century hillside barn, also known as a side-hill barn or a bank barn. These structures were built into the side of either a natural or an artificial slope and allowed open access into both a basement level and the main floor. The vertical use of space also left a smaller footprint. Andrew Jackson Downing suggested barns of this type for “a farm of moderate size” in his well-known manual The Architecture of Country Houses (1850). Bartow-Pell’s slope is manmade, according to Daniel Hopping, Frank G. Matero, and Zachary N. Studenroth in Historic Structure Report: The Bartow-Pell Stable (1980). “A drystone wall on line with the south façade projects from the building to create an embankment which rises gradually in front to the main stable floor.”

Carriage house plan, 1986

Robert S. Burton. Bartow-Pell Carriage House, 1986. Historic American Buildings Survey, National Park Service, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The building consists of three levels, each with a different purpose. The main floor is divided into an area for carriages and sleighs, a harness room, and horse stalls. The basement floor housed livestock and a cistern. “Surviving finishes indicate that these interior surfaces were once whitewashed (where exposed) for sanitary and waterproofing purposes” (Historic Structure Report). The top floor held a hay loft surmounted by a ventilator.

On the main floor, a clean area was needed to store vehicles, which were best kept away from hay dust. A. J. Downing wrote:

It is a common practice, even in stables of large size, to place the flight of steps to the hay-loft in the carriage-house, or space where the vehicles are kept;  but as this always effectually prevents the possibility of keeping either wagon, carriage, or harness clean, since the dust of the hay will find its way down the opening of the stairway, we would always place the access to the hay-loft, if it be only by a ladder, in a passage by itself, separated by a door from the room where vehicles are kept. 

Well, then, if the Bartows wanted to keep their vehicles clean, why are there stairs to the hay loft in the carriage room? Easy answer. The staircase is not original. Just as Downing suggested, the loft was reached by a ladder as in many stables in the 19th century.

The harness, or tack, room also required a clean environment, or as J. J. Thomas put it in 1856, “a small room for hanging up saddles, buffalo skins, etc., where they will be secure from dust.” Our harness room has a chimney connection, indicating that it was heated by a cast-iron stove. It may have been occupied by a stable boy or by John Crowin, an Irish-born coachman who worked for the Bartow family in 1860.

Horse stall

A restored horse stall and urine gutter in Bartow-Pell’s stable

The stables were separated from the carriage room by a wall. Like much of the building’s interior historic fabric, the original stalls disappeared long ago but were rebuilt in 1992. Mangers in each stall “were easily and directly filled from the hay loft through a space [in the ceiling] . . . [so that] the hay drops immediately into the manger or rack below” (J. J. Thomas, 1856). Gutters in the stable floor provided drainage for carrying away horse urine, which probably flowed into a tank in the basement. “Like the gutters attached to the roof eaves of the period to collect rain water, these are fashioned out of solid logs” (BPMM historic structure report). Horse urine was sometimes used as a fertilizer.

R. L. Pell stables (detail)

Illustration from “Stalls of Mr. Pell,” in Stable Economy: A Treatise on the Management of Horses by John Stewart (American edition), 1845. Robert Livingston Pell, a distant relative of Robert Bartow, had a farm and estate named “Pelham” in Ulster County, New York. Surviving evidence reveals that his horse stalls were similar to those in the Bartow stable.

A wooden platform on the north side of the building—reconstructed in 1992—would have been used to lift hay and grain from a wagon into the loft. Good air circulation was important for the prevention of dangerous fires, since moisture in improperly cured bales of hay can lead to heat build-up and spontaneous combustion. A rooftop cupola for ventilation was recreated when the building was restored. Air flow was also good for the horses, as it “allows the impure air from the stalls to ascend and escape” (J. J. Thomas, 1856).

J. J. Thomas. Carriage House and Stable, 1856. This “carriage house and stable, of moderate size, and capable of holding three horses and three or four vehicles” features a rooftop cupola for ventilation, like that on the Bartow stable.

The New York Times published a tabloid-like series of articles about a hay loft on the Bartow property in October 1884, when a young German servant named Mary Grote, “a handsome, fresh-faced girl, always laughing,” caused a sensation after she disappeared from a nearby tenant’s farm for a couple of days. A search party finally found her hiding mysteriously “in one of three large barns on the Bartow estate” “under half a ton of hay,” wearing a blue calico dress. She refused to explain her peculiar “escapade” to the authorities. But Bartow was “in a ferment [tumult].”

A common practice in hillside barns was to keep livestock, such as cattle and sheep (but not pigs and poultry), in a basement level. In 1846, for example, L. A. Morrell wrote in The American Shepherd about “a side-hill barn with underground apartments, which are unquestionably warmer for sheep than any other.”

Our carriage house retains its 19th-century cistern, which provided a water source and is visible through a hole in the floor of the harness room. Bartow-Pell’s Historic Structure Report discusses evidence of the water collection system:

It is most likely that water was collected from the roof in “eaves-troughs” (gutters) and conducted directly into the cistern. The only evidence for such a point of entry is a cement-lined hole in the masonry of the south façade. . . . The water could then be pumped up inside the stable into the harness room.

A. J. Downing describes a similar arrangement elsewhere: “At the side of the door, on entering this apartment, is the pump . . . a large cistern, which takes water from this side of the roof, being built under the floor here. There is a spout running through the wall.”


James Goold, Albany, New York. Carriage, ca. 1850. On long-term loan to Bartow-Pell from the Long Island Museum. In the early 1860s, Robert and Maria Bartow owned two carriages, a buggy, a spring wagon, and six horses.

Civil War-era inventories tell us that the Bartow family had two carriages, a buggy, a spring wagon, and six horses in the early 1860s. Their middle-aged bachelor son George lived at home, and when he died in 1875, his estate inventory consisted entirely of horse-related items and financial assets. A sleigh, a wagon, sleigh bells, harnesses, a wolf skin, blankets, and three horses were among his possessions.

Today’s visitors enjoy the carriage house and family garden.

The carriage house’s survival—which is a testament to the efforts of historic preservation groups—allows us a rare glimpse of life on a 19th-century country estate beyond the “big house.” Although the horses, carriages, and livestock are long gone, Bartow-Pell’s idyllic setting amidst the meadows, marshes, and woodlands of Pelham Bay Park makes it easy to imagine an earlier time.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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The Latest Fashion: An 1840s Dress Tells All

Around 1840, there was a fashion reaction after women grew tired of the huge sleeves, broad shoulders, big bonnets, and sometimes outlandish hairstyles of the previous decade. It was time for a change.


Silk dress, American, 1840s. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mrs. Melvin C. Steen, 1978. A chemisette (half-blouse) would have been worn underneath the bodice to fill in the deep V-neckline. The lace is not original.

An 1840s silk dress in Bartow-Pell’s collection enables us take a close look at the new style, which featured an elongated waist, rigid corsets, very tight triangular bodices, sloping shoulders, and full skirts. Let’s start by analyzing the bodice (or “body,” as it was often called). Fan-shaped pleats fall from gathers at the shoulders and form a long inverted triangle that dips below the natural waistline and terminates in a pointed, gathered panel. Slender piping strengthens the seams in the close-fitting bodice. Hooks and eyes close the back opening. Our dress has a plunging, open V-neck “corsage” (yet another period word for bodice), which would have been paired with a cotton or linen chemisette (a half-blouse) worn underneath. Wide lace currently fills the décolletage and runs down the back, but this was almost certainly added later, as fashion plates, period garments, and other primary sources do not show trim treatment of this sort. Besides, the large fill-in frill is awkward, especially if worn with a chemisette.

Chemisettes Godey's Feb 1847

Chemisettes. Godey’s Lady’s Book, February 1847

TC2012.12 sleeve detail

Sleeve detail with fringed ombré-embroidered passementerie and a thread-covered button accent. The arm trim rises to a point, echoing the dress’s pointed waist.

Fringed light-gray ribbon trim embroidered with ombré (progressing from light to dark) foliate motifs further accentuates the bodice’s V-shape and the slim upper arm. The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music, and Romance reported in August 1844 that “there is a good deal of variety in the sleeves; tight ones are very extensively seen, but in general they have some kind of trimming to take off from their excessive plainness.” Long narrow sleeves (often cut on the bias) and drooping shoulders—partially achieved through the low placement of the armscye (armhole)—were a reaction against the huge sleeves and wide shoulders of the 1830s. (Click here to read about a transitional-style dress in BPMM’s collection.) A very full skirt, which would have been supported by layers of petticoats, completes the look.

Waist detailStyle in the 1840s was partly about geometry. Angles, points, and triangular shapes can be seen across the many Gothic Revival art forms of the decade, including architecture, furniture, ceramics, clothing, and more. The most obvious example of the Gothic form in women’s fashion is the triangular bodice ending in a low point below the waist. Furthermore, informed people were well aware of historical influences on clothing, and this topic was sometimes discussed in women’s magazines. In August 1844, for example, the Ladies’ Cabinet described trendy dresses that were in “the Italian style of three hundred years ago, and . . . copied from portraits of celebrated beauties of that period.” A few months earlier, in March 1844, the same magazine captured the era’s historical vibe:

The forms of these dresses, as well as the materials, approach very nearly to those that we have seen described as fashionable in the early part of the last century; the waist rendered as long and taper as possible, and terminated, for the most part, by an excessively deep point in front, and the full-flowing skirt . . . have a strong family likeness to the gowns, as they were then called, of our great great grandmammas.


Bernardino Campi (Italian, 1522–1591). Portrait of a Woman, late 1560s. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Edith Neuman de Végvár, in honor of her husband, Charles Neuman de Végvár, 1963. Historical fashions strongly influenced 1840s styles. In August 1844, for example, the Ladies’ Cabinet described dresses in “the Italian style of three hundred years ago, and . . . copied from portraits of celebrated beauties of that period.” Note the similarities between this Italian style from the 1560s and BPMM’s dress and others from the 1840s.

What colors were in style? According to the New-York Visitor and Lady’s Album of December 1842:

The colors which are now most fashionable and likely to continue during the season, in more or less favor, are different shades of green, violet, fawns, and shots [iridescent fabrics]—such as pink and lilac, violet and green, pink and fawn, maroon and ruby-grenat [garnet]. Grey is a favorite color in silks.

In February 1844, the Ladies’ Companion grumbled that “those who sigh for . . . ill-assorted and gaudy colors are not, whatever may be their ostensible position in life, the truly fashionable and genteel. Boorishness—nay, even barbarism itself—often seeks to appear in lively and flaunting colors.” Bartow-Pell’s dress is in a stylish and sober shade—the ever-popular “fawn-colored silk” that is mentioned in numerous 19th-century sources.

March 1843 Lady's World fawn silk

The Latest & Newest Fashions March 1843. Illustration from The Lady’s World. At the center is “a walking dress of fawn colored silk, over which is worn a short green manteau.” Bartow-Pell’s dress is also made of the ever-popular “fawn-colored silk.” The Lady’s World, a women’s magazine published in Philadelphia, made sure to point out to its fashion-conscious readers that “the present plate has been engraved on steel after designs forwarded from Paris.”

The silhouette of the 1840s was narrow and elongated on top with a very full bell-shaped skirt on the bottom. This look was achieved by wearing the correct undergarments. Long, busked corsets flattened the bust and smoothed the torso through the hips so that tight bodices fit like a glove. (Click here to learn more about corset busks.) In addition, bodices were often boned. “It is usual to have a whalebone up the middle of the front; one, or perhaps two, at each side of the fore-body, . . . a whalebone at each of the side-seams under the arms, and up the outer edges of the back, where the hooks and eyes are,” Eliza Leslie instructed in The House Book: A Manual of Domestic Economy (1845 edition). A knee-length chemise (shift) was worn under the corset. This provided a soft layer between the skin and the corset and helped protect dresses from perspiration. In the 1840s, women wore multiple petticoats to add ample fullness to their skirts. Leslie wrote that “the skirt of a dress will not look well unless it is very full and wide; it should not be long enough to touch the ground, nor so short as to show the shoe binding.”

Corset Busk

Corset busk, first half of the 19th century. Wood. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum TC2012.83. In the 1840s, corsets—which laced in the back—were usually worn with a busk, a long, shaped piece of wood or other solid material that was inserted in a front placket of the corset for more rigid support.

Many writers of the period cautioned against constricting corsets and tight bodices, as these practices were often deemed unhealthy. Eliza Leslie proposed a way to alter corsets for “ladies who have sense and courage to resist the pernicious but almost universal custom of wearing long corsets with busks and whalebones.” And in her Treatise on Domestic Economy (1843 edition), the educator and author Catharine Beecher had strong opinions against tight clothing. She warned:

But the practice, by which females probably suffer most, is the use of tight dresses. Much has been said against the use of corsets by ladies. But these may be worn with perfect safety, and be left off, and still injury . . . be equally felt. It is the constriction of dress that is to be feared.

So long as it is the fashion to admire, as models of elegance, the wasp-like figures which are presented at the rooms of mantuamakers  [dressmakers] and milliners, there will be hundreds of foolish women, who will risk their lives and health to secure some resemblance to these deformities of the human frame.

Needless to say, fashionable dress in the 1840s restricted women’s movements. It was hard to bend over in a long, rigid, and tightly laced corset, and sleeves set below the shoulder made it difficult to raise one’s arms. Elegance came at a price. What were women thinking?

TC2012.12 interior bodice construction

Original bodice construction of Bartow-Pell’s dress with later alterations and added lace. Casing for whalebones runs up the front center and on the lower dart line to provide additional structure. A long rigid corset with more boning and a busk would have been worn as well.

TC2012 ruching on shoulder

Detail of shoulder ruching and trim

It is unknown who made Bartow-Pell’s dress. It could have been sewn at home by an accomplished seamstress or fitted and stitched by a professional dressmaker. The back of the bodice was crudely altered with a sewing machine at a later date and widened with a different fabric, and the lace frill was likely added at that time. Perhaps someone needed an outfit for a costume party and decided to alter a tight old-fashioned dress and fill in the deep V-neckline? Perspiration stains under the arms may also be from a later period because the original owner would have worn a chemise to help keep her dress clean (although that was no guarantee against staining!). Today the dress is useful as a study piece. It also represents women’s fashion during the years when the Bartow family was first living in their new house, which was finished in 1842. Perhaps Mrs. Bartow even owned a similar frock.

March 1848 Paris Americanized

Godey’s Paris Fashions Americanized. Illustration from Godey’s Lady’s Book, March 1848. French fashions were widely copied and adapted for foreign markets in America, Britain, and elsewhere. In 1848, Godey’s boasted: “We receive our fashions direct from the publishing house in Paris, in advance of all others, by contract. We take the liberty of Americanizing them, and suiting them to the more severe taste of American ladies.” Evidently the overthrow of France’s constitutional monarchy in the revolution of 1848 did not deter Gallic trendsetters. This fashion plate shows an open bodice on the right that is similar to the one on Bartow-Pell’s dress.

Finally, what accessories would have been worn in the 1840s? We have already mentioned chemisettes, but collars, undersleeves, and cuffs were also common. Jewelry frequently included a brooch and a watch on a long chain. Shoes were usually either a slipper style (perhaps with ribbon ankle ties) or ankle-high gaiters. A bonnet would have been de rigueur outside the house both for the sake of propriety and to protect the wearer from the elements. (Click here to read about bonnets in the 1840s.) Day caps made of fine white cotton were worn by women of all ages, but this practice seems to have been abandoned by younger women later in the decade. Shawls—in stylish paisley or silk broché (brocade) for those who could afford it—and other wraps, such as capes, provided warmth. An assortment of hairstyles replaced the high hairdos of the 1830s and included braided or plain buns worn at the back of the head and styles with side curls.


Seated Young Woman with Hand Raised to Jawline, 1840s. Daguerreotype. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Herbert Mitchell, 2008. The silk dress pictured here resembles the one in Bartow-Pell’s collection. Both have the triangular, elongated bodice of the 1840s that terminates in a point below the waist. Gathers control the fullness of the fabric at the bodice’s base (although cartridge pleats were sometimes used instead of gathers). This freckle-faced beauty wears several pieces of jewelry, including a long necklace, brooch, earrings, and rings. Her center-parted hair is flat at the front and sides and styled into braided loops and a braided coil at the back.

Bartow-Pell’s dress is a classic example from the 1840s, when women participated in a fashion revolution that brought about extreme body shaping. They did it for style, but was the tight squeeze worth it?

Margaret Highland, Historian

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A Botanical Paradise: Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London

One summer day in 2009, while rummaging through some uncatalogued volumes in Bartow-Pell’s collection of antiquarian gardening books, we unearthed something unexpected—seven large editions of the lavishly illustrated publication Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London. The title is businesslike, but the Transactions teem with the latest horticultural discoveries, innovations, and research from the first half of the 19th century. Beautiful hand-colored plates are scattered like gems throughout the letterpress pages.

Braddick's American Peach

Anonymous, British. Braddick’s American Peach. Illustration from Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, vol. 2, pl. 13, 3rd ed., 1822. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum. John Braddick read his account of a new peach from North America to the Horticultural Society on November 7, 1815. While traveling in Virginia and Maryland some years previously, he had observed not only how peach trees were propagated but also that peach crops in those areas were used mainly for making peach brandy and feeding hogs. At Braddick’s request, an American correspondent sent him “a small bundle containing about two dozen trees” grown from peaches chosen for their “exquisite flavour.” Only one tree grew [which produced the peaches show here], and “is now growing vigorously in my garden at Thames Ditton.”

Sir Joseph Banks

Thomas Phillips (1770–1845). Sir Joseph Banks, 1810. Oil on canvas. National Portrait Gallery, London

The Transactions were published in London from 1812 to 1848 by the organization that later became the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS). According to its charter, the society was formed “for the Improvement of Horticulture in all its branches, ornamental as well as useful.” The founders included Sir Joseph Banks (1743–1820), the great botanist and explorer who accompanied James Cook on his first voyage of discovery to the South Pacific; John Wedgwood (1766–1844), the son of potter and manufacturer Josiah Wedgwood; and Charles Francis Greville (1749–1809), a collector, mineralogist, horticulturalist, and member of Parliament, whose infamous mistress Emma later became Lady Hamilton and the lover of Admiral Nelson. Another important early member was the distinguished botanist Thomas Andrew Knight (1759–1838), who served as the society’s president and published many articles in the Transactions.

Exhibition Extraordinary

George Cruikshank (1792–1878), after William Henry Merle. Exhibition Extraordinary in the Horticultural Room, 1826. Hand-colored etching. The British Museum © Trustees of the British Museum

The 18th and 19th centuries produced some of the world’s great botanists and naturalists, including Linnaeus, Buffon, Audubon, and Darwin, to name a few. This was also a time when many learned societies, such as the Linnean Society and the American Philosophical Society, were formed. A palpable enthusiasm for outside-the-box thinking and Enlightenment principles created the perfect cocktail for an ever-evolving fount of new scientific knowledge and discoveries. And horticulture was part of that buzz.

Early Crimson Chrysanthemum and Large Quilled Orange Chrysanthemum

William Hooker, artist, and Charles Fox (1795–1849), engraver. The Early Crimson Chrysanthemum, The Large Quilled Orange Chrysanthemum. Illustration from Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, vol. 5, pl. 3, 1st ed., 1824. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum. On February 6, 1822, Joseph Sabine presented a paper describing some new varieties of Chinese chrysanthemums that had been imported in 1820 and were now thriving in the society’s garden at Chiswick.

The members of the Horticultural Society of London were at the forefront of this energy, and they sponsored expeditions around the globe in search of new varieties of plants. Landscape designer and former Bartow-Pell Conservancy president Marion Mundy described part of this quest in her text for BPMM’s 2009 exhibition The Age of Botanical Wonders: “The immense interest in growing tropical fruits and flowers in Europe’s northern climate was matched by efforts to improve and multiply domestic varieties. For fruits alone, a complex classification system was devised. Faithfully colored representations were necessary for scientific documentation of all of the new plants and for the developing commercial market.”

Keen's Seedling Strawberry

Charles John Robertson (active 1820s), artist, and William Say (1768–1834), engraver. Keen’s Seedling Strawberry. Illustration from Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, vol. 5, pl. 12, 1st ed., 1824. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum. “Mr. Keens also sent to the Meeting, on the 3rd of July, specimens of a new Strawberry, raised by himself. . . . The annexed figure, from a drawing made by Mr. Charles John Robertson, conveys a very perfect idea of the fruit.”

In the Transactions, horticulturalists published their research and wrote articles on an astounding variety of topics, such as the revival of an obsolete mode of managing strawberries, the glazing of hothouses and conservatories, the application of tobacco water in the destruction of insects, and the cultivation of new and rare plants at the society’s garden at Chiswick (on property they leased from the Duke of Devonshire). The organization also developed an extensive library (which in turn helped to inspire the library of the International Garden Club at Bartow-Pell in the early 20th century). Bartow-Pell’s editions of the first series of the Transactions were published between 1812 and 1830.

Four New Seedling Dessert Apples

William Hooker (1779–1832). Four New Seedling Dessert Apples: The Breedon Pippin, The Lamb Abbey Pearmain, The Braddick Nonpareil, The Pilmaston Russet Nonpareil. Illustration from Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, vol. 3, pl. 10, 2nd ed., 1822. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum. The horticulturalist and naturalist Joseph Sabine (1770–1837), who was the society’s secretary, delivered his paper on new seedling dessert apples on January 5, 1819. “Mr. Hooker’s excellent figures of them will probably convey a more perfect idea of their appearance than my description.” Hooker was known for his fine depictions of fruit.

Box for sea voyage, v. 5

John Lindley (1799–1865), artist, and J. B. Taylor, engraver. Box for Potecting Plants during Sea Voyages. Illustration from Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, vol. 5, pl. 4, 1st ed., 1824. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum. On November 5, 1822, the prominent botanist John Lindley  spoke about the society’s practice of importing plants and the challenges of keeping them healthy during sea voyages. Among other things, he recommended transport in wooden boxes rather than earthenware pots. “Among the cases received by the Society this year from its numerous contributors were . . . a kind of portable green-house, constructed in a very superior manner to any I have seen elsewhere.”

Amaryllis in display case

Barbara Cotton (active ca. 1810–30), artist, and William Say, engraver. Hybrid Amaryllis. Illustration from Transactions of the Horticultural Society of London, vol. 5, pl. 15, 1st ed., 1824. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum. The spectacular oversized illustration shown here was part of a past display in Bartow-Pell’s library.

The Horticultural Society of London engaged some of the best botanical artists of the day to illustrate the Transactions, including William Hooker (1779–1832) and Barbara Cotton (active ca. 1810–30), and the engraver William Say (1768–1834). Furthermore, a sophisticated production method was used to enrich the plates. Marion Mundy wrote: “The engravings in the Transactions use a variety of techniques to achieve their remarkable brilliance, texture, and dimensionality. The aquatint was used to shade or produce a tonal effect over large areas. Stippling also helped to simulate varying degrees of solidity or shading. Finally, many of the plates in Transactions were further enhanced by hand coloring, literally creating unique works of art.” The plates, which were printed separately from the text, also include black-and-white engravings that depict the latest mechanical and architectural structures for horticultural use.  The handsome volumes were printed by William Bulmer (1757–1830), the typographer and printer known for his deluxe edition of Shakespeare, and sold by Hatchards, the storied London bookseller on Piccadilly that is still in business today.

IGC Bookplate

Thomas Maitland Cleland (1880–1964). Bookplate for the International Garden Club, 1918. Cleland was a noted graphic designer, illustrator, type designer, and artist.

In 1914, Zelia Hoffman (1867–1929), a wealthy New York socialite, Anglophile, and garden enthusiast, founded the International Garden Club (IGC) on the model of the Royal Horticultural Society at the suggestion of the English garden writer Alice Martineau (ca. 1865–1956). The club leased the old Bartow mansion from the city of New York as its headquarters, and there, just like the RHS, the IGC established gardens, formed a library, and issued a horticultural journal. Although the Transactions are not listed in the 1917 inventory of books purchased for the IGC library with donations from members, they bear a bookplate indicating that the volumes were acquired during the club’s early years.

Botanical prints have often been viewed as merely decorative. Think of all the Redouté roses—and the gorgeous amaryllis from the Transactions—that have been reproduced for framed prints and boxes of note cards. But many images of plants originated as scientific records, and the Transactions illustrations are more than just eye candy.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Dashing Through the Snow! Sleigh Riding in the 19th Century

Carriage house in winter

Bartow-Pell’s carriage house in the snow

“Ah! This looks like winter!” Snow started to fall in New York City at around two o’clock in the morning on Wednesday, January 21, 1846. It snowed hard all day, “and it wasn’t any of your common, pin-feather snow but came down in flakes almost as big as bricks,” the New York Herald reported excitedly. The next day dawned clear and bright. The sun shone “down upon the pure snow [and] made the streets and housetops glisten like diamond mines.” Conditions were perfect for “sleighing mania.”

N. Currier, The Sleigh Race

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

Americans in cold climates were crazy about sleigh riding. Sleighs were not only sources of wintertime fun, but they were also used by both individuals and businesses when roads were impassable. Period sources—such as newspaper articles, short stories, songs, diary entries, and engravings—provide endless details about the use of sleighs in the 19th century.


Winslow Homer (1836–1910). Christmas Belles. Wood engraving from Harper’s Weekly, January 2, 1869

Just imagine the exhilaration of the fresh, bracing wind whooshing and blowing in your face as the horse quietly trots along the snowy ground to the sound of jingling sleigh bells. Fleecy rugs, furs, and blankets keep everyone cozy and warm. The winter merrymakers sing songs and wave and halloo to onlookers and passing sleighs.

Sleighing in New York

Thomas Benecke (American, active New York, 1855–56), artist, and Nagel and Lewis, printer. Sleighing in New York, 1855.  Color lithograph with hand coloring. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Edward W. C. Arnold Collection of New York Prints, Maps and Pictures, Bequest of Edward W. C. Arnold, 1954. This scene from the 1850s depicts heavy sleigh traffic on Broadway in front of Barnum’s Museum. Stage sleighs, a dandy and his belle, boys with snowballs, and a myriad of other revelers enliven the scene while a brass band serenades them from Barnum’s balcony.

In the city, a good snowfall muffled the usual cacophony of rumbling carriage wheels and the clip-clop of horseshoes on the paving stones. The sleighing season—or New York’s “winter carnival”—was enjoyed by people from many walks of life.

Broadway and other principal streets were filled at an early hour with vehicles on runners of all sorts, sizes, and descriptions. Here comes a splendid sleigh drawn by four black prancing steeds—fine fur robes line it, and protect its inmates from the cold. In it are packed half a dozen persons—the father, the mother, and the children. It is the “above Bleecker” millionaire taking a ride with his family. . . . Then here comes an exquisite with a huge moustache and long curled hair—on his head he wears a peculiar fur cap nearly a foot high, which protects his ears, and his body is encased in a huge fur coat. His sleigh is a curious one, hardly large enough, one would think, to contain a man. The bows are brought together in the form of a serpent’s head. . . . And then comes the mechanic, and the clerk, and the laborer, and all sorts of people in all sorts of sleighs, all laughing and happy. Whoop! Hollo! Here they come—a long splendid sleigh, drawn by sixteen horses, who glide, almost lightning-like with the huge vehicle, over the snow. It is packed closely full of old men—young men—merchants—clerks—tailors—hatters—bakers—milliners—seamstresses—and, in fact, with everybody who could raise a sixpence to take a ride with. This is the truly democratic sleigh. New York Herald, January 26, 1846

Click here to view a short film from the Library of Congress of sleighing in Central Park made in 1904 by Thomas A. Edison, Inc.

American Winter Scene, ca. 1867

American Winter Scene, ca. 1867. Joseph Hoover, publisher. Color lithograph. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Sleighing in the countryside had its own charms, even though it lacked “the excitement of a dashing, sweeping ride on one of the avenues,” as the New York Herald put it. William Augustus Bartow (1794–1869­­­) had a business career with his brothers (including Robert, who built the Bartow mansion) but later became a farmer near East Fishkill, New York, in an area close to the Hudson River where he and his wife raised ten children. Accounts of sleigh riding are scattered throughout the journal he kept from 1837­­­­­ to 1870 (now in Bartow-Pell’s archives). For example, on December 30, 1855, the family “went to church in [the] sleigh.” The diarist also noted that January 1865 was a very cold month with “sleighing since the 9th,” which continued until March. Sleighs were also kept at the Bartow mansion in Pelham, and a sleigh, sleigh bells, and a wolf skin were listed on the estate inventory of oldest son George L. Bartow (1828–1875), who lived at home with his parents, Robert and Maria, on their country estate.

Sometimes sleighs overturned or collided with each other. On the bright side, red noses and snowball-throwing boys were among the less serious drawbacks of sleigh riding.


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

Sportsmen and harness racers relished a good heart-stopping sleigh race with their trotters. In his bestselling book, the noted driver and trotter trainer Hiram Woodruff (1817–1867) recalled an electrifying race in the winter of 1842 through the not-yet-developed reaches of upper Manhattan. “The snow flew where it had drifted, and the runners of the sleighs made it shriek again as they slid over it to the music of the bells. I kept ahead, making the pace hot. . . . As we neared the city, the crowds grew greater, there was more noise and cheering, and more furious jangling of the sleigh-bells as the gentlemen drove their horses about. The more the noise and confusion, the greater the speed of Ajax. . . That was sleighing!”

Moonlight Sleigh-Ride

A Moon-Light Sleigh-Ride, no date. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Moonlit sleigh rides were enjoyed by both urban and rural revelers. On January 23, 1846, the New York Herald related that “countless numbers of sleighing parties were out, many to a late hour, many all night. Those of our citizens who slept had a fine opportunity of testing the power of merry music in inducing sleep, for the sleigh bells jingled in the city all night.” In the country, young people enjoyed what was known as a sleighing “frolic,” with supper, a dance, and—needless to say—plenty of flirting.

Sleigh-frolicking ranks very high. In small [American] country towns or villages, parties of a dozen or twenty young people (male and female) embark on board three or four sleighs, cutters, etc., and when the nights are beautifully clear, but cold as severe frost can make them, they will drive ten or fifteen miles into the country to some comfortable little tavern . . . where they spend a few hours in mirth and jollity, regaling themselves with the best that the establishment affords; when, having ate, drank, sung, danced, and “frolicked” until a pretty late hour, the sleighs are once more got ready, and in high glee and spirits they drive merrily home again. Each horse being provided with a string of good bells, the lonely and silent forests are often thus enlivened at the solemn hour of midnight by the jocund tinkling of the rapidly-passing sleigh bells. Many little love affairs are said to originate in these “sleighing-frolicks.” “Sleighs and Sleighing Frolics,” The Penny Magazine, September 9, 1837

Hollywood cameras follow a love-struck couple bundled up on a romantic nighttime sleigh ride in Christmas in Connecticut (1945), a holiday film about a spunky pair played by Barbara Stanwyck and Dennis Morgan. Click here to view a clip.

Jolly Sleigh RideSleigh riding also inspired an entire musical genre. Almost everyone loves “Jingle Bells,” the catchy song written in the 1850s by James Lord Pierpont (1822–1893), which was originally entitled “The One Horse Open Sleigh.” But that is just one of dozens of songs and other pieces of music written for or about sleighing, especially in the second half of the 19th century. “Sleigh Ride Galop,” “Sleighing Glee,” “Sleigh Bells,” “Sleigh Bell Polka,” “Pat Fay’s Sleighing Party,” and “Sleighing on a Starry Night” are just a few of the many examples in the Library of Congress. To listen to a 1913 recording of “On a Good Old-Time Sleigh Ride,” click here.

Pork versus Milk

Henry Collins Bispham (American 1841–1882). A New York Street Scene—“Pork versus Milk.” Wood engraving from Harper’s Weekly, March 7, 1868.

Albany Cutter

The New York Coach Maker’s Magazine, November 1858

There were many types of sleighs. Stage sleighs—or omnibus sleighs—could carry large numbers of passengers for a “remarkably low charge.” Mail sleighs, milk sleighs, and coal sleighs ensured delivery of essential items. And 19th-century Americans would have recognized “pung,” “cutter,” and “jumper” as various kinds of sleighs. One of the most popular recreational sleighs was the stylish Albany cutter, a lightweight model with a curvy, almost whimsical design that was known to be favored by Santa Claus and was first made by the well-known carriage and sleigh maker James Goold of Albany, New York. Sleighs were painted in red, black, or other colors and embellished with painted decorations such as stripes. “The cutter and sleigh painting of ’94 will be a fine show of colors. Fashion be praised!,” exulted the writer of “Paint Shop Gossip” in the October 1894 issue of Painting and Decorating.

TC 1993.04

Cutter, 19th century. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, TC1993.04. This is one of two sleighs in Bartow-Pell’s carriage house collection.

Petal bell

Bells with decoration such as this are called “petal” bells. This one is a size 2.

The jubilant tones of sleigh bells make the perfect holiday soundtrack. “Just hear those sleigh bells jingling, ring ting tingling too,” runs the 1948–50 classic song “Sleigh Ride.” More importantly, however, bells were early warning signals of an approaching sleigh as it glided softly—and sometimes noiselessly—over the snow. Starting in 1808, William Barton of East Hampton, Connecticut, popularized a method of making one-piece sleigh bells with the jinglet (pellet) inside during the casting process, and East Hampton foundries became the leading producers of sleigh bells in the 19th century.

Speaking of jingle bells, what could be more exhilarating than the thrill of “dashing through the snow in a one-horse open sleigh” and “laughing all the way?”

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Cheerful and Bright (and Smoky): Staying Warm in 19th-Century American Homes

Stories about the effects of cold weather in the 19th century are plentiful. Ink sometimes froze. Pitchers cracked and broke overnight when the water in them turned to ice. Bitterly cold wind made its way through poorly sealed windows and doors. Frosty mornings could make bathing torture.

Coal grate

Coal grate, ca. 1840. American or English. Brass and wrought iron. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Purchase, The Bartow-Pell Landmark Fund, 1982.01. This coal grate is one of a pair in BPMM’s double parlors. The grates were saved from a now-demolished mansion on Montgomery Street in Newburgh, New York, where they were fitted into the fireplace masonry.

So how did Americans stay warm? The answer should be simple. Didn’t people just light fires? Actually it was much more complicated than that. As is well known, the 19th century was an era of new technologies, and home-heating practices changed accordingly during this time.

Fireplaces and stoves were the primary home-heating methods. Although hot-air furnaces and systems using steam and hot water were available, their use was mostly limited to progressive, wealthy homeowners and to industrial and institutional consumers. Fireplaces, of course, were ubiquitous, and firewood had been used for hundreds of years. But coal—which was burned in specially designed fireplace grates—emerged as an alternative fuel for the hearth.

Stoves provided a more efficient way to distribute heat than the open hearth. Some were made exclusively for wood, but coal-burning stoves—which could also burn wood—had firebrick-lined sides and a grate for the coal. Retailers offered many choices. The United States patent list published in 1847 includes dozens of stoves for heating homes, and these patents dramatically increased in the 1830s and ‘40s.

Cast-iron parlor stoves were popular in prosperous mid-19th-century households. A fine example from about 1840 graces Bartow-Pell’s entrance hall and is on long-term loan from the Metropolitan Museum of Art. A flue opening in the wall behind the stove—now covered with plaster—allowed a stovepipe connection for ventilating dangerous fumes. This evidence reveals that the Bartow family, who moved into their new house in 1842, had a similar stove to warm their front hall.

Column Parlor Stove

Column parlor stove, ca. 1840. American, probably made in Albany or Troy, New York. Cast iron. Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Ellen Goin Rionda, 1953 (53.132.1a–i). Photo by Richard Warren. Hot air circulated in the columns of stoves such as this one in BPMM’s entrance hall, and the flames were visible behind the firebox’s two front doors. Stoves like this burned wood and possibly charcoal; the fuel doors were located on the side. A stovepipe would have connected to a flue in the wall for ventilation. The architectonic design of this handsome parlor stove boasts a myriad of fashionable classical motifs that reflect the high Greek Revival style of the Bartow mansion’s interiors.

The parlor stove at Bartow-Pell is typical of those made in Albany and Troy, New York, where a world-renowned cast-iron stove industry flourished in the mid-19th century. Here, raw materials, such as iron ore, were readily available. An efficient transportation network, including the Hudson River and the Erie Canal (which opened in 1825), provided convenient shipping of industrial supplies and finished goods. The Albany and Troy area also had a talented pool of innovative designers with technological expertise who were known for their ornamental and architectonic designs in the latest taste. The stove at Bartow-Pell, for example, reflects the Greek Revival style of the mansion’s superb interiors. The classical urn above the firebox would have been filled with water and used as a humidifier. According to Tammis Kane Groft, author of Cast with Style: Nineteenth-Century Cast-Iron Stoves from the Albany Area, the water was often “spiced or perfumed,” which helped to offset the unpleasant smell and dry air caused by the hot stove.

2007.10 Box Stove

Box stove, ca. 1844. Treadwell & Perry, Albany, New York. Cast iron. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of John I. Mesick, 2007.10. Box stoves were first made in the 18th century, but the design had been improved by the 1840s when this example in Bartow-Pell’s carriage house was made. One feature of these wood-burning stoves is a front plate to catch ashes and debris when the fuel door is opened. Ornamental moldings on stoves like this one often derive from contemporary architectural pattern books.

Lighting fires was often a bother. To start a new blaze in the morning, or if a poorly maintained fire went out, live coals from the kitchen stove could be used. In The American Woman’s Home (1869), the Beecher sisters wrote: “Those who are taught to manage the stove properly keep the fire going all night, and equally well with wood or coal, thus saving the expense of kindling and the trouble of starting a new fire.” For more on lighting fires in the 19th century, click here.

Andirons MMA 10.125

Andirons, 1800–1820. Boston, probably made by John Molineux (active 1800–1820). Lent by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Mrs. Russell Sage, 1909 (10.125.445a,b). In addition to andirons—such as these in the dining room at Bartow-Pell—accessories for wood fires included tongs and shovels.

“The best wood for fuel is hickory, and the next is oak. Locust is also very good; so are walnut, beech, and maple. Birch is tolerable. Chestnut wood is extremely unsafe from its tendency to snap and sparkle. . . . Pine wood is of little value as house fuel [because of] . . . its resinous qualities,” advised Eliza Leslie in her Lady’s House-Book: A Manual of Domestic Economy (1850). The high price of hickory was offset by its long-burning qualities. Despite some concerns over diminishing timber stocks, the robust firewood trade provided not only fuel for consumers, but also jobs for woodchoppers, suppliers, inspectors, wholesale and retail dealers, wood peddlers, shippers, and “carters.” According to “The Firewood Trade,” an article in the New York Herald published on May 26, 1856, business was booming.

Anthracite coal

Anthracite coal from Lattimer Mines, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Smithsonian Institution. Anthracite (“hard”) coal often came from mines in Pennsylvania and was preferred over bituminous (“soft”) coal.

Coal, however, provided a less expensive, more efficient, and more reliable alternative to wood. But change can take time, and people—mostly the women who tended domestic fires—had to learn the new techniques that were required to burn coal. Nevertheless, by the mid-19th century, coal consumption in the home had risen to record levels. Anthracite (“hard”) coal, commonly found in Pennsylvania, was more expensive but was preferred over bituminous (“soft”) coal. Eliza Leslie counseled, “In buying anthracite coal . . . that of the best quality is eventually the cheapest. It goes further, lasts longer, gives out more heat, with less waste. . . . Endeavor to obtain coal that is hard, bright, and clean-looking.” Bituminous coal, she wrote, “is much softer than the anthracite, emits more smoke, produces more dust and ashes, and the heat is far less intense, though the blaze is very bright.” An article in The American Farmer from December 15, 1826, talks about anthracite’s new popularity:

The use of the anthracite, as a fuel, has been so generally approved, that it seems likely to supersede, to a great degree, all other substances, both in manufactories and families. In almost every case, where it has been tried for parlour use, it may be said to have gained the preference over even the best hickory wood; and it is not unlikely that at no distant day, it will obtain an equally firm footing in our kitchens.

Coal, however, was dirty, and it polluted both homes and cities.

Paris l'hiver

Honoré Daumier (French, 1808–1879). Paris l’hiver (Paris in Winter), Le Petit Journal pour Rire, February 18, 1865. Lithograph on newsprint. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1936. This cartoon by the well-known French caricaturist Honoré Daumier satirizes smoky and sooty fireplaces, a universal problem in the 19th century. Here, a prostrate gentleman is enveloped in a cloud of smoke as his companion airs out the room, but he says that he will not complain to the landlord, who would surely use it as an opportunity to raise the rent.

A few years ago at Bartow-Pell, when the Sierra Club was clearing invasive vines from the property, an astute volunteer recognized some old coal underneath the tangle of roots. These pieces of anthracite coal were promptly turned over to the museum staff and provide fascinating evidence of 19th-century heating practices at the mansion.

Henry Sargent, The Tea Party

Henry Sargent (American, 1770–1845). The Tea Party, ca. 1824. Oil on canvas. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Andirons and a blazing wood fire are just visible at the right of this elegant scene in the double parlors of what is perhaps the artist’s own home in Boston. Wood fires were considered to be more welcoming and “cheerful” than ones made with coal.

Many households likely burned both coal and wood. After the use of coal became widespread, “cheerful wood fires” were romanticized, and their appeal was touted, especially by affluent homeowners with servants. A chatty debate on wood and coal enlivens a fashionable household in “Conversations by the Fire-side” (February 1839) by Sarah Josepha Hale, the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book:

“There is nothing in nature so charming as a bright wood fire!” exclaimed Mrs. Marvin. . . . The village school-master, who was spreading his hands to the genial blaze, [rejoined], “Wood is the natural material for the domestic fire, and I marvel that those who can obtain it, will ever burn that disgusting substitute, coal.”

“Oh! I like a coal fire, a good anthracite fire, that will last bright and warm as the summer’s sun, through a whole winter’s day, and the night too, for that matter,” said Ellen Marvin quickly. “Now a wood fire has no constancy of character; it is all blaze one minute, and all ashes the next. You can never leave it with safety, nor trust to its steadiness for an hour.”

“Unblest truly,” said Mrs. Marvin, “as I think every body must be who lives in the smoke and dust of soft coal, or the dry, withering heat of the hard. I passed a fortnight in Boston, last winter, and never saw a cheerful, blazing wood fire in all that time; I was quite home-sick.”

Ads--parlor stoves and coal

Advertisements for parlor and hall stoves (top), New York Herald, November 5, 1842, and coal (bottom), New York Morning Herald, November 14, 1839. Although many consumers preferred coal to heat their homes, others favored wood. (Both fuels could be used in fireplaces and stoves.) Coal was much more efficient, but it dried out the air. The author of “The Haunted Adjutant” in Graham’s Monthly Magazine (1845) had this to say on the subject: “But you must take a glance at the roaring wood fire which goes crackling up the chimney, and acknowledge its superiority over the pitiful grates and subterranean furnaces which are drying up the present generation to mummies. If flesh be indeed grass, anthracite [i.e., coal] will soon desiccate the American public into a very creditable hortus siccus [collection of dried plants].”

Coal grates are removed by an inept housewife in “Barclay Compton, or the Sailor’s Return” (December 1842), a Godey’s short story by Eliza Leslie. “Oh! I found a coal fire quite too much trouble,” explains the protagonist’s indolent wife upon his return home following a long absence. “It was so hard to get it to burn, and it was always going out. . . . Every one of them [the women servants] hated coal fires, and I got out of patience with coal myself. So I had the grates taken down. . . . And we burnt wood the remainder of the winter.”

The “domestic hearth” was a potent symbol of the family circle and even of Christian values. Moreover, children learned important lessons around the family fireside that extended beyond the home and into society at large.

Thus it has been—here in the family circle—at the domestic hearth—amid that sacred retirement—around the family altar, that the good citizen of all times and countries, has been educated, and trained, and fitted for the upright and honorable discharge of the duties incumbent upon him from his admission into the great social family. New York Herald, February 7, 1844

Americans no longer depend on 19th-century methods to heat their homes. But just like coal consumers in the 19th century, we still enjoy a “cheerful wood fire” at the “domestic hearth.”

Margaret Highland, Historian

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