A New Floor with an Old Look: Bartow-Pell’s “Floor Cloth”

Entry Hall

The new “floor cloth” in Bartow-Pell’s entry hall. This painted floor imitates a 19th-century oilcloth.

Bartow-Pell learned in September 2017 that it is the proud winner of a Greater Hudson Heritage Network 2017 Award for Excellence for its Historic Preservation Floor Covering Project. Kudos to our curatorial committee and to artist Franklin Tartaglione for their work on this project!

The Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum is thrilled to unveil a new entry hall floor covering in the manner of the period around 1842, when the residence was completed. The new “floor cloth” replaces linoleum flooring that was laid 35 years ago and had seen better days. The new covering has a field of octagonal patterns of faux marble interspersed with rosettes modeled on those found on early 19th-century mirror frames, which were in turn inspired by those used in ancient Greek and Roman architecture. A bold Greek key band borders the field.

According to Carswell Berlin, a BPMM board member, co-chair of the Curatorial Committee, and an expert in classical decorative arts: “The design is fully in keeping with the bold and colorful floor coverings of the period and with a Greek Revival house. Although the nature of the original floor covering used by the Bartows in 1842 is unknown, it is highly likely that they would have had a painted canvas floor cloth, the precursor of linoleum, in the entry foyer and that they would have felt very much at home with our historically appropriate choice of design.” In 1881, a floor cloth was listed on Maria Bartow’s estate inventory.

Roman mosaic Circencester

This mosaic pavement, which was found in a Roman villa in the English town of Cirencester in 1849, possibly influenced floor cloth designs.

In the 18th and early 19th centuries, painted canvas floor cloths or oilcloths were used much as modern linoleum is, in high-traffic areas where durability and easy cleaning are significant issues. Unlike linoleum today, however, painted floor cloths were used in the most visible and fashionable rooms in the house such as entry halls and dining rooms. A much less expensive alternative to stone, floor cloths were available in a wide variety of fashionable patterns and colors to suit every taste.

Carwitham plate 2

John Carwitham. Illustration from Various Kinds of Floor Decorations, London, 1739

Many manufacturers of oilcloths in Scotland and England, such as Michael Nairn of Kirkcaldy, Scotland, imported their wares into the United States. And a few domestic makers, such as New York Pattern Floor Cloth Manufactory at 35 Rivington Street, advertised their availability here. Oilcloths, both imported and domestic, were made available through carpet retailers, including Thomas L. Chester of 203 Broadway, who supplied the Astor Hotel, Peterson & Humphrey at 370 Broadway, and W & J Sloane at 245 Broadway.

Republic January 29, 1853

Newspaper advertisement for oilcloths manufactured by Albro & Hoyt, New York, 1853. “These goods are well seasoned, and will endure any climate.” According to An Encyclopedia of Domestic Economy (1845), cloths that had been aged a year or two were more durable than newer and cheaper ones.

The industrialized process of making oilcloth involved hanging huge lengths of heavy canvas that would be coated with multiple layers of primer and then decorated. According Jeanne Gearin, a consultant to Gracewood Design, a supplier of bespoke canvas oilcloths, “The following historical method of making canvases was contained in The Illustrated Exhibitor and Art Magazine, published in 1852. The material used was made in Dundee, Scotland, of flax and hemp. They were woven on large looms, which were constructed to accommodate the rolls, which ran approximately 113 yards, by 8 yards. This length (longer than a football field) was necessary to keep them from having to be seamed. Narrower widths for stairways and halls were cut from these rolls. After being folded into 3-foot square bales, weighing about 500 pounds, they were shipped to London.

MMA Floor Cloth Factory

Anonymous (British). Four drawings showing the manufacture of floor cloth, 19th century. Graphite, white chalk, and ink on gray paper. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Elisha Whittelsey Collection, The Elisha Whittelsey Fund, 1957 57.536.3

The canvas was then stretched on large frames. These frames were in a room with 30-foot ceilings and over 90 feet in length called a ‘straining room.’ Scaffolds were erected between the frames with just enough room for a man to stand and paint first the front of one canvas and turn around and paint the back of another. The canvas was first sized and sanded with pumice to a smooth surface. Extra heavy paint was troweled on, allowed to dry, pumiced again and built up to three coats. Drying time took two to three months. No dryers were used, as they would cause the paint to crack. This large, cumbersome, heavily painted canvas was then rolled onto wooden rollers to prevent damage. It was then pulled into the printing room to be decorated. The rollers were fitted into iron sockets similar to a roller shade and gradually rolled out on the tables to be decorated.” The market for oilcloths evaporated with the introduction of linoleum in the mid-1860s.

As the Curatorial Committee watched the deterioration of the previous floor covering, they began many years ago to prepare for the day when a new floor cloth could be installed. In an effort to replace the old linoleum with the most period-appropriate flooring, the Committee researched the few artisans who have the knowledge and skill to reproduce authentic canvas oilcloth. Many meetings were held and many samples examined. After studying the suppliers and their products exhaustively, the Committee decided that an authentic canvas cloth could not withstand the constant traffic of hundreds of visitors whom Bartow-Pell welcomes each year. They come directly from the parking area in every type of weather, and they walk multiple times across the foyer. So the Committee decided to install a resilient modern product called Marmoleum, in an off-white color with no pattern, and to have the design painted on it. Marmoleum is an all natural product that does not off-gas toxins, it is fire-resistant, 100% bio-degradable and is estimated to last for 50 years as opposed to twenty for the best canvas oilcloth.


Removing the old floor, June 2017

Fenway Floor Covering of New Rochelle, NY, was selected to remove the old linoleum and to lay the new unpainted flooring, which was done during the second week in June this year. Heat-welded seams, a new and improved technique, were used to join the four lengths of material together in order to achieve the necessary width to span the room from wall to wall and to forestall the breaking apart of seams that plagued the old flooring. In the week that followed, three coats of white primer were laid down as a ground for the decorative painting. During the final week of June, Franklin Tartaglione, who had worked as an assistant painting the previous floor 35 years earlier, arrived with his team of artists and created the masterpiece that we are celebrating today.


Artist and decorative painter Franklin Tartaglione at work in June 2017, 35 years after he assisted on the 1982 Bartow-Pell floor.

This stunning new floor covering is part of a broad campaign planned by the Committee to upgrade the rest of the entry hall and ultimately the entire house, in order to reflect the high level of polish that surely prevailed in a home with seven servants. As part of the initial focus on the entry hall, the Committee plans to repaint the room and, accordingly, undertook a historical paint analysis of the architectural wood trim. This led to the conclusion that the original color was very much like the current wall color, which was itself the result of microscopic analysis. The massive and multiple rosewood-paneled doors with silvered knobs and hinges are also due for a restoration that will reveal the beautiful grain of the wood and the luxurious hardware on which Maria Lorillard Bartow must have spent lavishly. Needless to say, for these and other projects, funds are desperately sought.

Painting the floor cloth, 1982 (7)

Trompe l’oeil artist Robert Jackson and his assistants Franklin Tartaglione and David Robertson paint the imitation floor cloth in the entry hall in 1982. The protective varnish yellowed over the years and altered the original tan and beige colors.

Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum is extremely grateful for funding from AB―Lori and John Massad, the Paul and Klara Porzelt Foundation, and from the individuals who contributed to the 2015 holiday fundraiser paddle raise for generously underwriting the cost of this beautiful new floor. Thanks are also due to Nora Mazur, former board member and Committee co-chair, who led the effort to make it happen, and to Committee member Leah Lenney, whose assistance and knowledge were invaluable.


Posted in Mansion Musings | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Bartows and Art: A Lost Portrait, Famous Relatives, and Artistic Neighbors

Sitting Room

These pendant portraits of Robert Bartow’s cousin Clarina Bartow Johnston and her husband, William Sage Johnston, are nineteenth-century copies that hang in the sitting room at Bartow-Pell.

We don’t know if the Bartow family had an interest in art, but we do know that they lived in the midst of artists, collectors, and a thriving art market.

Robert Bartow and Maria Lorillard married in 1827 and set up their household in New York City. Like most well-to-do couples, they likely purchased pictures—such as oil paintings and engravings—for the walls of their home. The art market was flourishing at the time of the Bartows’ marriage, and New York City was chock-full of auctions, dealers, and exhibitions. Fashionable Americans were especially enamored of European art, an infatuation that continued for most of the nineteenth century. In addition, the founding of the National Academy of Design in 1825 and movements in American art such as the Hudson River School helped forge a strong national artistic identity. Subsequently, the Bartows had numerous choices when it came to decorating their parlor walls.

Portraits allowed affluent people to possess likenesses of family members, which was especially meaningful in the days before photography. Portraits were also status symbols that proclaimed lineage or connections to distinguished relatives. In addition, the skill and prestige of the artist—and the sitter’s dress, setting, and props—were meant to impress and inform the viewer about the family’s wealth, education, taste, and other attributes.

Clarina Bartow Bartow

The whereabouts of this portrait of Robert Bartow’s mother, Clarina Bartow Bartow, are unknown.

This brings us to a lost portrait. A dark and grainy photocopy of a photograph in the Bartow-Pell archives is our only visual record of a portrait of an older woman identified as Robert Bartow’s mother, Clarina Bartow (1763–1839), who is depicted wearing a cap of a style popular in the 1830s. She moved from Westchester to Fishkill in 1806 with her husband and children and died at the Brooklyn home of her son Edgar in 1839. The photocopy bears a notation that names the artist as Asher B. Durand (1796–1886). Although he is best known as an engraver and Hudson River School landscape painter, Durand painted portraits in the 1830s. Expert scholarship is needed to confirm or debunk this attribution (the original portrait would help, too!).

Clarina Bartow’s portrait is mentioned in the will of the Bartows’ son Reginald Heber (1842–1888), who was her grandson. He died on October 13, 1888, at the age of forty-six.

I devise that the Portrait in oil of my Grandmother Clarina Bartow now in the possession of my sister Catharine B. Duncan . . . shall remain the property of persons related to me by blood and for that reason I give the same to my brother Theodoret Bartow directing him to dispose of the same by will to and among his issue and for want of such disposition . . . I give said articles to my oldest sister living at the death of said Theodoret Bartow . . .

Clarina Bartow née Bartow married her second cousin Augustus Bartow (1762–1810) in 1786. Robert was the couple’s first son to live to adulthood, and according to his nephew Evelyn P. Bartow in 1878, Clarina’s “portrait is in the possession of the family of her eldest son, Robert, of Pelham, N.Y.” Robert Bartow died in 1868, and he probably left the portrait to his eldest son, George. After George’s death in 1875, Reginald Heber likely inherited the painting. Although it is possible to partially trace subsequent ownership of the portrait using Reginald’s will, it appears that the Robert Bartow family line has died out, and this important family treasure is lost. Where could it be today?

Maria Bartow Cole

Thomas Cole (1801–1848). Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Maria Bartow, 1836–48. Graphite with white watercolor. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Maxim Karolik for the M. and M. Karolik Collection of American Watercolors and Drawings, 1800–1875, 55.716 www.mfa.org

Thomas Cole

Thomas Cole, 1844–48. Daguerreotype from the studio of Mathew Brady. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-8981

Asher B. Durand, who purportedly painted Clarina Bartow’s portrait, was a close friend of the English-born artist Thomas Cole (1801–1848), who is known as the father of the Hudson River School. Both men were also among the founders of the National Academy of Design. On November 22, 1836, Thomas Cole married Robert Bartow’s first cousin Maria Bartow in the parlor of Cedar Grove in the Catskills, which belonged to the bride’s uncle and became the couple’s home.

In 1846, Robert Bartow sold a parcel of his land to the prodigious art collector and future painter of Luminist landscapes James Suydam (1819–1865) and his sister Letitia. (Luminist painters used light and atmosphere to produce serene images of nature.) Suydam was from a wealthy family and had recently returned from a three-year European Grand Tour. By 1848, the Suydams had settled in next door to the Bartows. “The adjoining estate, Oak-shade, is the property of James A. Suydam, Esq.,” wrote local historian Robert Bolton Jr. “The house is a very beautiful specimen of the Italian villa style. The south front commands a fine view of Pelham neck and the Sound.”  The 1850 census records the artist, several of his siblings, and their mother living there, but the Suydams sold the property in 1855.

Suydam, James The Fisherman

James A. Suydam (1819–1865). The Fisherman (Going Fishing), 1848. Graphite, pen and ink, and watercolor on paper. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Stuart P. Feld. The inscription says: “A hearty man a fishing went / And on a chub his looks he bent.” It is signed, dated, and inscribed on the reverse “October 1848 / Miss [illeg.] Griffin from / James Suydam.”

James A. Suydam

John Carlin (1813–1891). James Suydam, 1859. Portrait miniature, watercolor on ivory. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Museum Purchase, 1974.13.1

James Suydam was in his thirties when he began the transformation from amateur to professional artist. His earliest known work, according to the 2006 exhibition publication Luminist Horizons, is a drawing now in a private collection that is dated 1848 and entitled Going Fishing. The setting, with water in the distance, resembles the landscape around the Suydam and Bartow estates. In Luminist Horizons, Katherine E. Manthorne quotes Suydam’s mentor and friend, the artist Miner Kellogg (1851): “He [Suydam] set up his easel at home in Pelham and made his first essays in oil painting from Nature.” But it wasn’t until 1861 that Suydam was made an Academician of the National Academy of Design. The artist also assembled a significant collection of more than ninety American and European paintings, which he bequeathed to the National Academy at his death in 1865, along with an endowment to be used for the Academy’s art school.

Pelham Priory, ca. 1860

Pelham Priory, ca. 1860

The Bartows’ neighbors also included the Reverend Robert Bolton (1788–1857) of the Pelham Priory, Anne Jay Bolton, and their artistic Anglo-American family of thirteen children. In 1843, William Jay Bolton (1816–1884) designed the Adoration of the Magi at Christ Church, Pelham (where the Bartows occasionally worshipped), which is the first known figural stained-glass window in the United States.

Bolton Magi

William Jay Bolton (1816–1884). Adoration of the Magi, 1843. Stained-glass window at Christ Church, Pelham

Edgar John Bartow

Edgar John Bartow (1809–1864) wanted to build a grand church in Brooklyn with rent-free pews. The Church of the Holy Trinity was built between 1844 and 1847.

A few years later, Jay and his brother John (1818–1898) executed a large program of windows for the Church of the Holy Trinity in Brooklyn Heights, in a building designed by Minard Lafever and funded by Robert Bartow’s brother Edgar John Bartow (1809–1864).

William Jay Bolton was also a painter and Associate of the National Academy of Design whose teacher was the Academy’s president Samuel F. B. Morse. On April 22, 1843 (coincidentally or not, the foundation stone of Christ Church was laid about a week later), Jay invited Morse to Pelham, but the older artist was unable to accept even though he “should be glad to luxuriate amidst its spring flowers,” according to a letter in the archives of the Episcopal Diocese of Long Island. Jay, John, and their brothers also excelled at woodcarving, and some of their sisters were accomplished watercolorists and floral painters. Their father was an enthusiastic art collector, and the family’s sprawling Gothic Revival mansion was full of art, antiques, and all manner of collectibles, including paintings such as a portrait attributed to Thomas Gainsborough (see Blake Bell’s blog post for more).

Hunter Mansion 1882

John Hunter mansion, 1882. Albumen print. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York. The house once stood in what is today Pelham Bay Park. It was demolished in the 1930s, when Robert Moses was Parks Commissioner.

NY Herald ad 1.18.1866

Advertisement for the auction of John Hunter’s picture collection. New York Herald, January 18, 1866. Did the Bartows attend?

John Hunter (1778–1852) lived near the Bartows in his grand mansion on Hunter’s Island, where he entertained his friend President Martin Van Buren. Hunter was well known for his celebrated collection of Old Master paintings, and, by 1850, he had amassed almost four hundred oil paintings, almost all by European artists. Robert Bolton Jr. described Hunter’s house in 1848: “The principal rooms, together with a large picture gallery, are hung around with an extensive collection of paintings by the best masters.” Bolton remarked on works said to be by Raphael, Poussin, and Rembrandt, among others. The collection was auctioned off in New York City by Hunter’s heirs in 1866. Works offered for sale were said to be by artists such as Fragonard, van Dyck, and Rubens, but it is unknown if all were authentic because dubious attributions and copies passed off as originals were common problems in the nineteenth century.

Cot, The Storm

Pierre-Auguste Cot (French, 1837–1883). The Storm, 1880. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Catharine Lorillard Wolfe Collection, Bequest of Catharine Lorillard Wolfe, 1887, 87.15.134 http://www.metmuseum.org/. Catharine Lorillard Wolfe commissioned this painting from the artist, who counted her cousin John Wolfe among his most important patrons. The Storm was exhibited at the Salon of 1880 and attracted widespread attention.

Catharine Lorillard Wolfe (1828–1887) was related to the Bartows through Maria Lorillard Bartow. She also attended the Boltons’ school for young ladies at the Pelham Priory. Miss Wolfe had an enormous fortune and was a great collector and patron of the arts. She was especially interested in nineteenth-century European paintings, and French works in particular, many of which she commissioned directly from the artists. Although today some of the painters she championed have been relegated to the sidelines, many were extremely popular at the time. She bequeathed about 150 pictures to the Metropolitan Museum of Art upon her death.

Margaret Highland, Historian

Posted in Mansion Musings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Bridget, Mary, Hannah, and John: Who Were the Bartow Servants?

In the nineteenth century, a lot of people lived in the Bartow mansion, but not all of them were named Bartow. As anyone who has watched Downtown Abbey or Upstairs, Downstairs knows, that’s because the household included live-in servants.

Taking the Census

Francis William Edmonds (American, 1806–1863). Taking the Census, 1854. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Gift of Diane, Daniel, and Mathew Wolf, in honor of John K. Howat and Lewis I. Sharp, 2006 2006.457. http://www.metmuseum.org/. From 1850 to 1863, genre painter Francis William Edmonds lived a few miles from the Bartow estate in the village of Bronxville. This scene depicts a census taker recording the family’s details while the father ponders the number of people in the household. A female servant leans on the chair as several children hide.

Servant turnover was high in the nineteenth century, so the Bartows probably employed dozens of people during their fifty or so years on this property. We will probably never know anything about most of their employees, but luckily the census can tell us a bit about who lived and worked in the house at certain times. Genealogy buffs know that the 1850 enumeration was the first to provide details about the entire household, such as name, age, place of birth, and occupation. So let’s start there, when on August 13, 1850, the enumerator, Bartow neighbor Robert Bolton Jr., recorded five Irish-born servants in the mansion—four women and one man: Frances Flanningham, 50; Jane Haring, 34; Margaret Coffee, 23; Hannah Kallaha (Callahan?), 20; and the gardener, William Murray, 26, who probably doubled as the coachman, as was sometimes the practice. The women’s occupations were not noted, and only Hannah and William could read and write.

Ten years later, in 1860, the staff had changed. There were now six employees: Mary Berrigan, 26, cook; Julia Berrigan, 21, chambermaid; Mary Covert (or Covat), 25, domestic; Bridget Connor, 35, laundress; Matthew Hellen, 55, gardener; and John Crowin (or Cloure), 30, coachman. All were Irish-born except Mary Covert, who was born in New York but probably had Irish parents. Bridget, the laundress, and Matthew, the gardener, were illiterate.

Bartowfamily detail

Bartow family members with a servant (at left). Detail from an albumen print, ca. 1870. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum

The last year we will look at is 1870, when most of the Bartows’ grown children and five of their grandchildren were living in the house, and Maria Bartow, now a widow, employed seven people: Kate Marshall, 22; Eliza Trainer, 35; Annie Regan, 26; Hannah Nazle, 12; and three men who were probably brothers, John Riley, 22; Matthew Riley, 31; and James Riley, 29. All the women and John Riley are described as “domestic servants,” and the other two men are “laborers.” Twelve-year-old Hannah was born in Germany, but the rest were born in Ireland. Eliza and John were illiterate, and Kate could read but not write.

HW1871P509956 Harpers June 1871

Land-Ho!—Scene on Board an Emigrant Ship. Illustration from Harper’s Weekly, June 1871

So, the census indicates that almost all of the Bartows’ servants were born in Ireland; most were in their twenties and thirties; and some were illiterate. The Great Famine brought hard times to Ireland in the 1840s, and the effects continued for years. Families starved, farms suffered, and many desperate people left the country for a better life. Emigrants to the United States—including many unmarried women—experienced an uncomfortable transatlantic sea voyage to find low-paying jobs in a foreign country. Newspaper advertisements for positions in domestic service in New York City during the 1850s and ’60s offer wages from about five to nine dollars per month. In 1862–63, the Bartows’ annual income was $2,500, and their real estate holdings were valued in 1860 at $80,000.

Help Wanted ad 1.23.1862 NY Herald

Help wanted advertisements from the New York Herald, January 23, 1862

Roman Catholic Irish immigrants frequently experienced bias in Protestant America, and mistresses and their Irish servants also endured class and culture clashes. Numerous contemporaneous sources complain about “Bridget’s” clumsiness, impertinence, and lack of common sense. Some employers even placed help wanted ads specifying Protestant, German, Scottish, or English applicants. In 1864, the author of “Your Humble Servant” griped in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine: “The main-stay, then, of our domestic establishments is the Irish female peasant. She it is who is both the necessity and plague of our homes. As we can not dispense with her strong arms, we have to endure her ignorance, her uncouth manners, her varying caprices, and her rude tongue.” However, he wrote that the “character of servants would be greatly elevated if they were treated more like fellow creatures and less like beasts of burden.” The author also asked: “Bridget, it is true, can seldom read or write, but why should not an effort be made to teach her?” Similar sentiments also occur throughout T. S. Arthur’s 1854 moralistic book Trials and Confessions of an American Housekeeper. In “Two Ways with Domestics,” one woman makes unreasonable and ill-tempered demands on a never-ending stream of domestic help, whom she calls idle, dirty, ill-natured, and saucy. Her friend’s servants are cheerful and accommodating, and she believes that “four-fifths of the bad domestics are made so by injudicious treatment. . . . Instead of being borne with, instructed, and treated with consideration, they are scolded, driven, and found fault with.”

In 1838, when the Bartows were apparently living in an older house on the property, their live-in tutor Augustus Moore wrote a lively firsthand account of life on the estate in a letter to his sister. He enthused:

They live in first style I assure you. Have servants and waiters in abundance. One waits upon the table and another upon something else. If I want a drink of water I merely call on a waiter. If my boots want blackening just tell the negro boy, if you ride out a servant is ready to open the gates on your return and yet there is none of that stiffness or affected greatness that you find around the would-be gentry of N.E. [New England]. Mr. & Mrs. B. are very free, social and kind and I am treated not only respectfully but kindly.

This is the only record we have of an African-American working on the estate, but there may have been others. In addition, it is likely that the Bartows hired some local people with no need to live at the mansion.


Illustration from Life in New York In Doors and Out of Doors by William Burns, 1853

Servant life meant hard work and long hours, day after day after day. There were not many shortcuts. Today, it only takes one look at the labor-intensive instructions in a nineteenth-century household manual to inspire wide-eyed amazement. Chambermaids like Julia Berrigan had to empty chamber pots, replenish hot water for the bedchambers, tend fires and lamps, and perform numerous other tasks throughout the house. According to Mrs. E. F. Haskell’s Household Encyclopedia (1861):

The chambermaid is also generally the housemaid; she is expected to make up the beds, do all the other part of the chamber-work, sweep and dust the parlors, wipe the paint, etc. . . . If the cook or laundrymaid waits at breakfast, she should, while this meal is being served, air the chambers, shake up the beds, carry down the slops, and wash the chamber crockery.

The CookThe WasherwomenSometimes the chambermaid was also the “waitress” at meals. It is unknown which servant helped Mrs. Bartow care for her many children, but period newspaper ads show that chambermaids sometimes filled this role. The cook’s job required good organizational skills, stamina, and a thorough knowledge of food preparation. The Bartows’ cook Mary Berrigan, for example, was in charge of preparing three punctual meals a day for eight family members, six servants, and perhaps others. She also had to maintain the cookstove fire, bake bread, and wash dishes. Laundress Bridget Connor washed, starched, and ironed large quantities of table and bed linens, undergarments, men’s shirts, and other items in a house without running water or electricity. Housekeeping expert Mrs. Haskell recommended that the laundrymaid “bring in, the evening before washing, as much water as her extra tubs, etc., will conveniently contain” and that “she should rise very early.”

Buggy with coachman 1850s

Illustration from The New York Coach-Maker’s Magazine, Vol. 1, June 1858 to May 1859

The male servants had demanding jobs as coachman, gardener, and general laborers. John Crowin, the coachman in 1860, would have cut a fine figure in his livery when driving the Bartow family to church, on errands, to pay calls, and attend evening parties. But his job was not all about the clothes and going out for drives. Although he probably had the help of a stable hand, the coachman had horses, carriages, and tack to look after. According to the U.S. Tax Assessment List, the Bartows owned two carriages, a buggy, a spring wagon, and six horses in 1863. Finally, gardeners William Murray and Matthew Hellen had to care for the estate’s large landscaped property in the days before leaf blowers, lawn mowers, and other modern equipment. And in the winter, the conservatory (now the Orangerie) demanded their attention.

Detail with gardener

Members of the Frederick Prime family with a gardener (at left with shovel) at Edgewood, their country estate in New Rochelle, 1860s. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum


Arnold Moses. Attic Bedroom, Bartow Mansion, November 17, 1936. Photograph for the Historic American Buildings Survey. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. This attic room was used as a caretaker’s bedroom before World War II. In 1936, the year in which this photo was taken, the mansion was Mayor LaGuardia’s “summer city hall.”


The coachman would have slept in the carriage house, and although the census reports do not record a stable boy like the one seen here, perhaps a youth from a local farm helped with the horses and carriages.

When bedtime finally arrived, female servants slept in the third-floor attic, which has evidence of heat sources for cold months. In warm weather, clerestory windows and a roof hatch provided ventilation. The coachman would have lodged in the carriage house, and the other male servants also probably slept in outbuildings. During working hours, the basement must have been abuzz with activity. Today, a warren of rooms—with fireplaces, hallways, windows, doors, a cistern, and what appears to have been the servants’ dining room—provides evidence of what life was like below stairs. On Sundays, servants who wanted to attend mass probably walked four miles to St. Raymond’s Church, which dates from the 1840s.

Basement plan

Basement plan from Principles of Domestic Science by Catharine E. Beecher and Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1870. This scheme is a good indication of servant work areas in the Bartow basement.

The many personal stories of people who lived and worked on the Bartow estate are lost in time. If only these walls could talk . . .

Margaret Highland, Historian

Thanks to generous donors at our December fundraiser, the clerestory windows in the attic have been repaired. This was the first step toward creating an exciting new interpretive space for the servants’ living quarters. Stay tuned!

Posted in Mansion Musings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The International Garden Club Goes International: The Barra School Children’s Garden Competition, 1936–1952


Isle of Barra, view from the summit of Heaval. © Copyright Chris McLean and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

The Isle of Barra, a remote windswept island in Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, is a world away from Bartow-Pell and New York City, but there is a fine story to be told about these two places and their forgotten connection.

In 1936, Bartow-Pell was the headquarters of the International Garden Club, which had been formed in 1914. The club’s agreement with the New York City Parks Department required that the IGC restore and maintain the house and garden. In return, the organization’s well-heeled members were allowed to use the Pelham Bay Park mansion as a center for their horticultural, social, and public activities. The group’s founders also agreed to provide instruction to “teachers for Public School Gardens” and “to assist other Horticultural Societies and Garden Clubs.”


Robert Lister Macneil, 1915. Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-96148

On September 6, 1936, the New York Times announced the marriage of IGC member Marie Stevens Hicks (1887–1952) to her second husband, Robert Lister Macneil (1889–1970), the Macneil of Barra, an American architect who was the forty-fifth chief of his clan. The bride, who had a distinguished pedigree, was the wealthy widow of a U.S. congressman. Thanks to the generosity of the new Mrs. Macneil, in 1937 the newlyweds bought the romantic ruins of Kisimul Castle on the Isle of Barra, the ancestral home of the groom’s clan.


Kisimul Castle, Isle of Barra

While her husband was busy with plans to restore the castle, Marie Macneil took a keen interest in the local people and their needs. On her first visit to the island in 1936, she had discovered that there was a severe shortage of fresh vegetables, and she decided to do something about it by creating the Barra School Children’s Garden Competition for the seven schools in the community. In 1938, Marie Macneil secured assistance from the International Garden Club, which she felt should support projects that were in line with its mission to educate people about gardening and to support horticulture on an international level. In addition to her time, passion, and energy, Mrs. Macneil also donated her own money.


Mary Ludlow Fowler Tuckerman (Mrs. Eliot), International Garden Club President, 1937–41 and 1946

Marie Macneil later described the project in a lecture at the Pasadena Garden Club:

Upon my first visit in 1936 to those remote Outer Isles, I had found the usual British diet—boiled mutton, boiled potatoes, and sometimes boiled onions. No green vegetables, and masses of that ghastly store bread, hampers of which were arriving by the tri-weekly boat from the mainland. I decided to set up a garden competition among the school children there and spent in the beginning one pound on the seeds for the seven schools . . . and gave a pound to each school as prizes. The Scottish press got hold of this and . . . a clipping was sent to the President, Mrs. Eliot Tuckerman, of the International Garden Club of New York, who asked permission to aid the plan by having the Club send a medal the following year to the first prize winner of each of the schools and a cup to be competed for by the seven schools, the one winning this three times to retain the trophy.

Students ages 12 and above were invited to plant 14-square-foot vegetable gardens on the “best ground which can be spared on the croft [farm or field] as regards soil and position . . . well drained, sunny, and protected from the full force of the wind. It should also be protected by fences or wire-netting from cattle, dogs and hens, and there should be no danger of the sea coming in at an exceptionally high tide.” Composting was strongly encouraged, and fertilizers were made from chicken, cow, horse, and sheep manure along with seaweed. No commercial products were allowed. With funds from Mrs. Macneil and the IGC, seeds were purchased from local suppliers or sent from New York by boat.

This year the number of gardens was doubled, between forty and fifty having been started. Of these, only one or two had been neglected; a few had been destroyed by cattle raids, and one by the sea . . . The vegetables included potatoes, turnips, carrots, cabbages, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, beetroot, leeks, lettuce, and parsley. . . . Some of the mothers, however, admitted that beetroot was not popular in the household and others that they did not know what to do with the Brussels sprouts. F. Marian McNeill, “The Cottage Garden: A Hebridean Experiment,” The Scotsman, September 26, 1938

According to the guidelines, “Marks will be awarded for neatness, sensible planning and absence of weeds as well as for quality of crops.” The students in each school placing first, second, and third won cash prizes from Mrs. Macneil, and those in first place also got a bronze medal from the IGC. In addition, the rules stated: “The Department of Education will buy for the school canteens, at a fair price, any surplus from the children’s gardens not needed by the children and their families.”


Letter from Marie Macneil of Barra to IGC President Florence Van Rensselaer, on Barra School Children’s Garden Competition letterhead, June 3, 1948. The IGC’s role is mentioned at the bottom.


Lady Evelyn Barbara Balfour, 1943. Photograph by Elliott & Fry. © Copyright National Portrait Gallery, London. Lady Eve was on the school gardens’ advisory council and was the Honorary Life President of the Soil Association.

A local committee oversaw the program and was led by a director on a small salary contributed by Mrs. Macneil. The heads of the schools were Regional Directors, and local authorities and horticultural experts served on an advisory council, including Lady Eve Balfour (1898–1990), a British innovator in organic farming and influential author of The Living Soil, and F. Marian McNeill (1885–1973), the Scottish folklorist and author of The Scots Kitchen.

During World War II, it was “impossible to keep up this individual activity,” Mrs. Macneil later recalled. But other projects also needed her attention. She wrote: “I turned my mind to the reclaiming of as much acreage as possible, not only on Barra . . . but also on the two islands immediately north. . . . While launched upon this endeavor to reclaim and produce (for which I borrowed the money from the bank) we grew literally tons of carrots.”  She explained: “Carrots . . . are of inestimable value not only for the stored vitamins for people living in a sunless community but help . . . in mitigating blackout sickness and became essential I understand for aviators flying by night.” In 1940, she also organized and chaired the Scottish Clans Evacuation Plan “to aid child evacuation from the bombed areas of Britain,” according the New York Times. On February 7, 1942, the Times was able to report that “already more than 100 children are housed in the Inverness-shire castles of Moy Hall and Corrimony House, and Balmacaan, nearby, has just been made available.” Her friend, supporter, and IGC President Mrs. Eliot (Mary) Tuckerman was chairman of the evacuation plan’s New York City committee.

“During the war years there were upheavals in my own life which caused me to believe I would never wish to return to the dear island,” Mrs. Macneil reminisced. (She and her husband divorced in 1942.) “Then when the world food situation became so acute, I wrote to our local banker on the island to ask him to ascertain whether any of our island children would like to have me resume the garden competition.” In 1947, the contest was back in business and continued with the support of the IGC until 1952, the year of Marie Stevens Macneil’s death.


Concrete barn on Barra. © Copyright M. J. Richardson and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons

In 1951, Mrs. Macneil reported that since the beginning of the competition in 1936, “and in spite of the intervening war years . . . 400 or 500 school gardens have been made.” The island’s physician, Dr. Norman MacKinven, praised the program: “I feel I must write to say what a splendid plan the vegetable cultivation by the children is. There is, I am sure, not a corner of Scotland where it is so much needed. The diet of scones and Glasgow bread . . . plays havoc with children’s teeth and adults’ digestive systems here to an appalling extent.” In 1951, Craigston School took possession of the IGC’s grand prize silver cup “for keeps” because it had won the competition three times.

Today, Bartow-Pell is proud to continue the tradition of organic gardening for children that was championed by Marie Stevens Macneil on the island of Barra so many years ago. Since 2012, BPMM’s Children’s Garden has grown and flourished under the expert care of horticulturalist and educator Lauren Gill, who uses the garden as a hands-on outdoor classroom to teach New York City schoolchildren and others about plants, sustainability, and healthy food in the 21st century.

Margaret Highland, Historian

Materials relating to the Barra school gardens were unearthed when Bartow-Pell’s archives were catalogued in 2013, thanks to a grant from the New York Preservation Archive Project’s Archival Assistance Fund.


Posted in Garden Musings, Mansion Musings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Let’s Talk Silhouettes: An Edouart Conversation Piece


Augustin Amant Constant Fidèle Edouart (French, 1789–1861). Conversation Piece (Family Group), ca. 1839. Cut silhouette with pencil and watercolor on paper. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Bartow-Pell Landmark Fund and Pride in Pelham Fund in memory of Marcia van Tassel, 1988.01

One hundred thousand. That is the astonishing number of recorded silhouette likenesses produced by the French-born artist Augustin Amant Constant Fidèle Edouart (1789–1861), according to British scholar Sue McKechnie. One of those portraits, a so-called “conversation piece,” is in Bartow-Pell’s collection.


Augustin Edouart. Likeness of Monsieur Edouart from the title page of his book A Treatise on Silhouette Likenesses, 1835. Edouart’s portrait is surmounted by a quote in French from the noted Swiss physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801), who espoused the theory that physical characteristics correspond to individual character traits. According to Lavater, a silhouette likeness allowed a person’s countenance to be read like an open book.

Edouart, the sixteenth child in his family, served in the Napoleonic Wars. But in 1814, after losing much of his property, he left France to live in England. Monsieur Edouart began his artistic career by making hairwork pictures of human or animal hair. But while visiting friends one evening in 1825, the family showed him likenesses created by a “patent machine.” In a fit of contempt, Edouart grabbed a pair of sewing scissors and quickly cut his first silhouette, a fine profile portrait of his host, which he blackened with soot from the candle snuffer.

Edouart was a virtuoso freehand cutter who was dismissive of mechanical devices—such as the physiognotrace—that were sometimes used to trace and reduce a profile. He used his exceptional artistic ability, shrewd market sense, and disdain for inferior methods and poor craftsmanship to strengthen and market his brand, and his efforts paid off in commissions and in the press. For example, on December 7, 1844, a writer for the New-York Daily Tribune admired Edouart’s work:

No one, who has any eye for art, can for a moment confound Mons. Edouart’s cuttings with common shadow likenesses or profiles. There is all the difference between the two that there is between the scraping of a fiddle for a village dance and the violin played by a master’s hand. His likenesses are not only invariably accurate, but they are full of life, spirit, and expression. Some of them seem actually to laugh, and talk, and think.

Monsieur Edouart published A Treatise on Silhouette Likenesses in 1835. In this rather idiosyncratic volume, the author discusses his technique and work, gives advice, and tells personal anecdotes. Edouart probably envisioned the treatise as a platform to publicize the superiority of his portraits over those of his many competitors and as a way to boast about his aristocratic clients. The title page announces that he is “Silhouettist to the French Royal Family and Patronised by His Royal Highness the Late Duke of Gloucester and the Principal Nobility of England, Scotland, and Ireland.” In addition, Edouart used the treatise as an opportunity to vent; the long-suffering artiste goes on for almost thirty pages in a chapter entitled “Grievances and Miseries of Artists,” and another chapter discusses “Vexations and Slights.”

Edouart also popularized the French word “silhouette” in English-speaking countries. The eponymous term derived from an eighteenth-century cost-cutting French finance minister who also cut paper portraits for amusement. The use of a French word for the inexpensive medium of “black shade” likenesses was probably part of Edouart’s marketing strategy because it associated his work with France’s glamorous reputation for luxury goods. (In addition, the artist continued to style his name—Monsieur Edouart—in a fashionably French way after he emigrated.) “Why does such prejudice exist against black shades, which I call Silhouette Likenesses?” Edouart implored in his Treatise.

NPG 1638; Sir Walter Scott, 1st Bt by Augustin Edouart

Augustin Edouart. Sir Walter Scott, 1st Baronet, 1830–31. National Portrait Gallery [London], NPG 1638

Edouart’s sitters ranged from luminaries such as Sir Walter Scott and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to a variety of everyday people. He even cut likenesses of horses and dogs. Portraits were usually full length and plain black. Some were set against lithographed or painted backgrounds. Conversation pieces (such as the example at Bartow-Pell) were groups of figures that often depicted entire families engaged in various activities. Edouart always signed his work and cut duplicates, which he inscribed and saved in folios.

In 1839, after twenty-five years in Britain and Ireland as an itinerant émigré artist, Edouart sailed for America. He spent ten years traveling around the United States and cutting portraits of thousands of Americans, including several presidents. The silhouettist set sail for France in 1849 with the duplicates of his life’s work, many of which were lost when his ship was wrecked near Guernsey. Fortunately, Edouart survived, but he apparently never again cut a silhouette professionally. He died near Calais in 1861.

The conversation piece at Bartow-Pell was purchased by the museum in 1988. Unfortunately, Edouart’s original signature (which might have included the date) had been lost earlier in conservation. However, by comparing the composition of our silhouette to other works, we can assign a date of around 1839. (Click here to view an Edouart family group from that year.) Similar figures can also be found in another conversation piece dated 1839 that is in the Ulster Museum in Belfast (McKechnie, British Silhouette Artists and Their Work, fig. 384), a city where Edouart worked en route to the United States.

Clothing and hairstyles also provide dating clues. The woman wears her hair in a knot placed farther down on the head than in mid-1830s styles. Her sleeves have frills above the elbows and are tight on the forearm (with the narrow edge just visible above her wrist); this style was introduced in the late 1830s. And hemlines, which had previously been worn at the ankle, fell to the instep after 1836.


The Last & Newest London & Paris Fashions 1840 Morning & Dinner Dresses (detail). The World of Fashion and Continental Feuilletons. These sleeves are ruffled at the top and tight at the bottom, like those worn by the woman in Bartow-Pell’s conversation piece.


Piano, American, ca. 1825. BPMM, 1998.02

Edouart says in his treatise: “I have back grounds adapted to the Silhouette Likenesses [that] . . . impart greater interest than if they were standing on nothing (I mean pasted upon white paper only) . . . I have Artists (and I may say not inferior ones) employed to draw those back grounds.” The watercolor background of our family group depicts a sparsely furnished parlor. The lady sits in a scroll-back klismos chair—a common element in some of Edouart’s interior scenes—and near an upright piano. An inkwell and pieces of paper rest atop a cloth-covered table, adding an everyday element to the tableau. Backdrops in conversation pieces like those by Edouart can be useful tools for recreating historic interiors. The upstairs sitting room at Bartow-Pell, for example, reflects settings in some of Edouart’s silhouettes.


The upstairs sitting room at Bartow-Pell includes some of the same furnishings found in an exquisite family group silhouette of the Trimble family of New York cut by Edouart in 1842 that is in the collection at Winterthur. The Bartows moved into their new mansion that same year. (Click here to view the silhouette.) Note the collection of sea shells on the bottom shelf of the pier tables.

By the time of Edouart’s death in 1861, the heyday of the silhouette was over, and shades and profiles were outdated. Inexpensive portraits were coming out of the shadows, so to speak, and photographs had rapidly replaced them as a quick, easy, and affordable way to obtain realistic likenesses. But there is tantalizing evidence that Edouart started to dabble in the new and exciting medium of daguerreotypes. The famous silhouette artist placed an advertisement in the New-York Daily Tribune on February 14, 1845, in which he assures the public that he “continues to take single Likenesses or Family Groups.” The interesting thing is that he ends with this offer: “Likewise, DAGUERREOTYPE LIKENESSES taken from nature, Portraits, and Miniatures; copies of the Silhouette Family Group.” Scholars have noted that Edouart cut very few silhouettes beginning in 1845, when, according to Sue McKechnie, only eight works were recorded. Was Edouart changing with the times? This is an intriguing subject that is waiting to be explored.

Margaret Highland, Historian

Posted in Mansion Musings | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Holidays Past: A Bartow Christmas in the Civil War Era


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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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



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

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


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

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

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

Exactly one year later, the newspaper changed its tune:

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Margaret Highland, Historian

Posted in Mansion Musings | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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


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

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

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

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


Wild turkey at Bartow-Pell

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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


Pumpkins from our Children’s Garden

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Margaret Highland, Historian

Posted in Mansion Musings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment