More than Summer Style: An 1840s Straw Bonnet


Godey's April 1844

Fashion plate from Godey’s Lady’s Book, Philadelphia, April 1844. The middle figure wears a “straw bonnet trimmed with plain ribbon.” The woman at the left wears a fabric bonnet covered in white lace, and the lady of the house (seated) wears a day cap to receive her callers.

Nineteenth-century fashion editors in Paris, London, Philadelphia, and New York loved to write about straw bonnets. Why all the chatter?

This charming headgear was a spring and summer favorite for decades. The female population relished the thrill of buying or making a new bonnet, which was about as exhilarating as choosing a new dress. But the manufacture of straw bonnets was also an important milestone for women in the labor force, both as a cottage industry and in factories. And bonnets of all kinds were part of a social and even moral code that no longer exists today (except in certain cultures).


Poke bonnet, 1840s. Probably New England. Straw and lace. This bonnet likely had decorative trimmings at one time. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mary Means Huber, TC2012.31

Let’s begin our discussion with an 1840s straw bonnet in Bartow-Pell’s collection. For most of that decade, bonnets had a small crown that merged with the brim in a straight line extending over the forehead. (Styles with projecting brims that partially obscure and shade the face are often called “poke bonnets.”) In the 1840s, many brims had very low sides that dipped below the chin line, and bonnet strings had to be attached and tied on the inside, forming an oval around the face. Bonnets were made of fabric (such as silk, satin, or crepe) or straw of various kinds. “Italian and rice straw, though so long in vogue for summer bonnets, promise still to retain their supremacy, though not certainly to the exclusion of other materials, particularly of fancy ones,” The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music & Romance announced in 1841. Bonnets in the 1840s were worn with a bavolet—a ruffle or curtain at the back—which was not only decorative but also provided protection from the sun. A wide assortment of trimmings—artificial flowers, feathers, ribbons, lace, and more—allowed women to personalize and update their bonnets, and ladies enjoyed buying trimmings from bonnet shops and milliners. Bartow-Pell’s straw bonnet retains its shallow lace bavolet and was likely adorned with additional trimmings at one time.

Straw Bonnet, 1841

Italian straw bonnet and carriage dress from The Ladies’ Cabinet of Fashion, Music & Romance, London, July 1841. The bonnet is “trimmed with sprigs of scarlet geranium. Green ribbon, figured with white and scarlet at the borders, and a bouquet of geraniums adorn the crown.”

La Mode 5.22.1841

Chapeaux de paille d’Italie (Italian Straw Bonnets). Detail from a fashion plate published in La Mode, Paris and Brussels, May 22, 1841

American and British women looked to Paris for the latest fashions. In May 1841, an animated French editor wrote in La Mode that “à present!,” straw bonnets were the thing, along with airy scarves and lightweight and “vaporeuses” white fabrics. In their fashion choices, “jeunes femmes” must banish reminders of cold and fog, commanded the author. “Regardez le bleu du ciel, voyez la splendeur du soleil!” (Look at the blue of the sky, see the splendor of the sun!) In July 1844, the Ladies’ National Magazine of Philadelphia kept its American readers up to date on cutting-edge Paris bonnet styles: “Straws were never more in vogue in Paris, and they are almost universally adopted here, though drawn capotes [a bonnet made of shirred fabric] are very fashionable.”

Bonnets required special care. In The Young Lady’s Friend (1845 edition), Mrs. John Farrar cautioned against careless habits.

The practice of coming into the parlour with your walking-dress on . . . [and] throwing your bonnet down on one chair and your cloak on another, . . . gathering them up any how, and holding your bonnet by one string, or with a gripe [grasp] of the front that bends it; all these little things will in three months greatly deface your clothes . . . Bonnets are very much injured by lying about; they should be put into their proper box the very moment they are taken off the head, unless they are dusty or damp. In the former case, blow or wipe off the dust; in the latter, adjust the bows whilst you dry them; for a bonnet should always be put away in proper order to be worn again at a minute’s notice.

In A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1843 edition), Catharine Beecher counseled: “Bonnet-boxes, made of light wood, with a lock and key, are better than the paper bandboxes so annoying to travelers.” Others agreed. Beecher also advised that a “bonnet-cover, made of some thin material, like a large hood with a cape, is useful to draw over the bonnet and neck, to keep off dust, sun, and sparks from a steam engine. Green veils are very apt to stain bonnets, when damp.” Beecher and other authors also provided instructions on how to clean, whiten, and stiffen straw bonnets.


George P. A. Healy (American, 1813–1894). Euphemia White Van Rensselaer, 1842. Oil on canvas. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Bequest of Cornelia Cruger, 1923. This portrait of the daughter of a prominent New York family was painted in Paris in 1842. The sitter wears a bonnet with elegant and expensive trimmings in the latest fashion.

Bonnets were essential apparel for ladies appearing in public. Society and propriety demanded it. In 1843, Chambers’ Edinburgh Journal did not mince words: “It would appear that the wearing of a bonnet of silk, straw, or any other material, distinctly marks a woman as belonging to the lady class. If she has no bonnet, she is nobody; if she wear one, she is at once a person of consideration, at least of pretension.”


Straw bonnet. Braided straw, paper lining, and wire wrapped in silk. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Gift of Miss Ellen A. Stone. This straw bonnet follows 1840s styles and was worn in Lexington, Massachusetts.

Straw hats were popularized in the late 18th century by fashion trailblazer Marie Antoinette, who wore them with simple white cotton dresses. This pastoral look—which was inspired by the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau and its emphasis on the natural state—quickly became a trend that spread to Britain and America. Fine Leghorn straw hats from Italy were especially desirable, as were those made in Dunstable, England. In the late 1790s, Americans began to produce their own straw headgear instead of relying entirely on imports. The industry blossomed in Massachusetts, where women and girls not only prepared straw made from local rye and wove it into plaits at home but also worked in bonnet factories, a number of which sprang up in “straw towns.” According to census statistics in Manufactures of the United States (1865), “In 1845 Massachusetts turned out 1,046,954 straw bonnets and hats, valued at about as many dollars, and of straw braid to the value of $102,237.” These figures continued to climb, and by 1860 Massachusetts was producing straw goods valued at $3,398,466. Some production also occurred in a few other states in the Northeast. “The business in 1860 employed 40 establishments in the United States. . . . It gave employment to 826 male and 6863 female hands.”

New England Bonnet Makers

New England Bonnet Makers. Illustration from “Straw Bonnets,” 1864. Women and girls working at home were part of the production process.

Straw Bonnets,” an article published in Harper’s New Monthly Magazine in September 1864, describes the production process in homes and bonnet factories, from harvesting the rye to packing bonnets for shipment and sale. Although many workers learned their skills at home or on the job, charity schools in Philadelphia provided “for the instruction of girls in the plaiting of straw and the manufacture of straw bonnets and trimmings,” according to the book Philadelphia in 1824.

Wiring Hall

Portion of a Wiring Hall. “This is the pleasantest room we have yet visited, not only from its situation, but also on account of its occupants . . . for through the halls leading to it we hear the music of female voices, and as we draw nearer recognize the patriotic strains of ‘Hail Columbia.’ Yes, the ‘girls’ (as the female operatives are always called) are really singing!”

Nineteenth-century moralists targeted a number of alleged vices, and even the innocent straw bonnet did not escape censure. In 1825, An Essay on the Manufacture of Straw Bonnets, attributed to Samuel Standley, was published in Providence, Rhode Island. The author rebuked the industry and “its effects upon the employments, dress, food, health, morals, social intercourse, etc. of the inhabitants of the several towns in which it has been carried on.” This anti-feminist manifesto readily blames what the writer saw as the ills of American society and its moral decline on women earning a living making straw bonnets. These views must have provoked at least a few raised eyebrows and perhaps some scornful shrieks of laughter from factory girls.

Bonnet shop June 1845 Beau Monde

Fashions for June 1845. This illustration from the Nouveau Beau Monde depicts the bonnet department of W. C. Jay & Co. on Regent Street in London.

Moralizing novelists also jumped on board. In Temper, a work first published by Mrs. Opie in 1812 and reprinted in Philadelphia in 1843, a pretty straw bonnet with pale blue ribbons lay on a shop counter. What young lady wouldn’t be tempted by this “amazingly becoming” and fashionable item? “To resist . . . was impossible.” In this scene, the straw bonnet is used to convey a moral lesson in which the character succumbs to flattery, pride, and a lack of self-control by buying a bonnet she does not need and can barely afford while her disapproving grandmother looks on.

Bonnets appear in a variety of other writings from the period. They can represent respectability, such as when Fanny McDermot donned a “neat straw bonnet” to maintain her self-respect, in a work by Catharine Maria Sedgwick published by Godey’s in 1845. A Sunday bonnet is “a pretty straw bonnet trimmed with gay ribbons and flowers” in A Summer Journey in the West (1841). But young ladies in church could be distracted by “arranging your dress, or watching for the entrance of your friends, or spying out new bonnets,” admonished Mrs. John Farrar in The Young Lady’s Friend (1845). “My bonnet is perfect,” rhapsodized a flibbertigibbet named Isabella in The Young Lady’s Home (1839). Her father complimented her “uncommon taste in the choice of my bonnet” as they returned from church, and “W. bowed to me as I passed him, with such empressement.” Unsurprisingly, her pretty head was filled with thoughts of “delightful balls and parties” in the midst of her Sunday musings. Charles Dickens turned the straw bonnet into a comic prop in Martin Chuzzlewit (1844). Mrs. Hominy “was very straight, very tall, and not all flexible in face or figure. On her head she wore a great straw bonnet, with trimmings of the same, in which she looked as if she had been thatched by an unskillful labourer.”

Bartow-Pell’s straw bonnet may remind us of carefree summer days in the past, but it has a more complex story hidden under its brim.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Sea Breezes and Business as Usual: Mayor La Guardia’s Summer City Hall, 1936

New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia smiled broadly at photographers as his motorcade reached the historic Bartow mansion at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday, July 2, 1936. The diminutive dynamo arrived for his official duties at the new summer city hall in Pelham Bay Park accompanied by his sometime nemesis Bronx Borough President James Lyons, who had joined the mayor and his entourage at the Bronx line as they traveled from Manhattan.

Mayor Arrives at Bartow, July 1936

Mayor Fiorello La Guardia arrives at the Bartow mansion with Bronx Borough President James J. Lyons on July 2, 1936. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum archives

The mayor’s move to the northern reaches of the city allowed him to spend some nights in Westport, Connecticut, where his wife and two children were summering. “He plans to take no regular vacation this summer and his visits to Westport will provide all the recreation he expects to get,” the New York Times reported on June 26, 1936. By relocating to the Bronx, La Guardia was also reminding constituents that there was more to New York City than Manhattan. And in the years before air conditioning, the city sweltered in July and August. Cooler sea air and the park’s acres of grass, shade trees, and marshland helped make the heat somewhat bearable. “From July 2 until Labor Day Mayor La Guardia forsook the City Hall, traditionally a summer hot box, and worked in the Bartow Mansion in Pelham Bay Park, facing breezy Long Island Sound. His office was cool and spacious, with twenty [sic]-foot ceilings, old paintings on the walls, and a view of a terraced garden with fragrant phlox, petunias, water lilies, roses,” the Times gushed at the season’s end. A reporter wrote that temperatures were about 15 degrees cooler inside the mansion, with its two-foot-thick stone walls.

James Lyons Presents Key to Bronx to La Guardia

Bronx Borough President James J. Lyons presents a symbolic key to the borough to Mayor La Guardia upon arrival at the summer city hall. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum archives

La Guardia’s obituary noted in 1947 that he “established a series of Summer City Halls, at the Bartow Mansion in the Bronx, in the old Chisholm mansion in College Point Park [Queens], and at the former Arrow Brook Golf and Country Club in Queens. When the city purchased the Gracie Mansion on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, it became the Mayor’s residence.” Today, both Bartow-Pell and Gracie Mansion are affiliated with the Historic House Trust of New York City.

Rear Elevation and Garden

Arnold Moses, photographer. East Elevation and Garden, Bartow mansion, October 12, 1936. Historic American Buildings Survey. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

The International Garden Club had leased the old Bartow mansion from the city in 1914 and hired the architectural firm of Delano & Aldrich to restore the house and create a formal walled garden. Because many IGC members decamped to their country homes during the summer, the clubhouse was largely unused in July and August. After the mayor made plans for his summer city hall in 1936, a flurry of activity began at the mansion.

Preparations went on for the Mayor’s arrival at his summer headquarters tomorrow or Thursday. Three policemen were assigned to the mansion, two mounted and one on foot. Visitors were politely asked whether they had official business at the mansion before they were permitted to proceed [past the sentry booth]. Telephone lines were going in for the Mayor and newspapermen with him, and two Park Department employes [sic] were added to care for the grounds surrounding the mansion. Drink stands at the near-by Pelham Split Rock golf course got ready for a rush of business. New York Times, June 30, 1936

A teletype machine was installed at Bartow to transmit lengthy official documents to City Hall downtown. Journalists on the beat got creative. “One newspaper plans to use carrier pigeons to carry stories and pictures from the Summer City Hall to its offices in downtown Manhattan,” the Times divulged on June 27.

Teletype Machine

Teletype machines, which were telephonic devices similar to typewriters, were used to transmit documents. Private James C. Lee was photographed using one in 1948 at Camp Edwards, Kentucky. Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, The New York Public Library

The mansion’s small parking lot was a jumble of cars, including an eight-year-old converted police department patrol wagon that carried visitors from the Pelham Bay Park subway station to the summer city hall. Herman Spumberg drove the shuttle, which was labeled “City Hall Bus—Official Business.” The mayor’s Depression-era frugality was well intentioned, but the makeshift van broke down after about a month when Mr. Spumberg was turning into the Bartow driveway and its steering mechanism failed. The vehicle was towed to a police garage for repair.

The summer city hall was not popular with everyone. A few days before the move, the Times reported that 200 unemployed workers demonstrated at City Hall Park to ask for an increase in their public assistance payments and demand that the mayor “remain near the people.” The picketers’ spokesman complained, “He’s not the Mayor of Pelham Bay. He’s the chief executive of New York City.” The article also discusses the challenges faced by the mayor’s staff—“mosquitos, high fares, lack of restaurants, and inaccessibility.” The trip on public transportation from Times Square, for example, took about an hour and a quarter each way and involved subways, buses, and walking. Lunch options near the summer city hall were slim. “Mr. and Mrs. John Robertson, caretakers of the mansion, will look after the Mayor, but others must make the best shift they can.” Inaccessibility was an annoyance for some but beneficial for Mayor La Guardia, who “expects to get more work done in a shorter time because of the fewer number of interruptions.”

South Parlor--Mayor's Office

Arnold Moses, photographer. View from South to North Drawing Room, Bartow mansion, November 17, 1936. Historic American Buildings Survey. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division. Mayor La Guardia used the south parlor as his office. Carved eagles in the door pediments add a patriotic touch.

The mayor was the hero of a real-life fairytale on July 13, a few days after New Yorkers reeled in record heat. (The story evokes 1930s motion picture shorts starring Alfalfa and the other kids from Our Gang.) A group of boys, whose neighborhood playground was controlled by aggressive teens, decided to do something about the situation and went straight to the top brass for help.

Seven tired and begrimed youngsters trudged four miles from their homes to the Summer City Hall yesterday to ask Mayor La Guardia for a playground in their section of the Bronx and found their wish gratified as if Aladdin had rubbed his legendary lamp. The youngsters, ranging in age from 9 to 12 years, were on the grounds of the Bartow Mansion before the Mayor arrived. . . . When the Mayor came they told him what they wanted. . . . “Wait a few minutes,” he said, “and I’ll see what I can do for you.” While seven pairs of dusty shoes swung hopefully beneath as many chairs in the Mayor’s reception room, the Mayor got the Police Department on the telephone. At his request the police made a play area of Buck Street between Seddon Street and Zerega Avenue. . . . When the Mayor told them the location of their new play street, they were highly elated. Their delight reached a higher point when . . . the Mayor’s assistant secretary gave them each a nickel to save them the long walk home. They rode down to the Pelham Bay Park subway station free in the City Hall bus and took the subway home from there. New York Times, July 14, 1936

Pelham Bay Orchard Beach 1903

Wooden bath houses, Pelham Bay, Orchard Beach, 1903. Postcard. Collection of Thomas X. Casey. These old structures were demolished in the 1930s.

There were other big happenings in Pelham Bay Park during the summer of 1936. Orchard Beach, an ambitious construction project under Parks Commissioner Robert Moses that was chiefly funded by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), was one of a number of new aquatic centers in the city. The site, which was partially visible across the water from the old Bartow property, comprised a mile-long seawall, a crescent-shaped manmade beach, a Moderne-style bathhouse, a promenade, concession buildings, and parking for thousands of cars. In July 1936, about a year before the recreation facility was completed, the beach partially opened to the public amidst a great deal of fanfare. Mayor La Guardia addressed 10,000 people at the dedication ceremony, in which he and Commissioner Moses exchanged “thrusts,” according to the Times. In the evening, the fireworks continued. But this time, instead of from the podium, the pyrotechnic display—which was viewed by 15,000 people—was spectacularly launched from a barge 1,500 feet offshore.

Orchard Beach

Main Pavilion and Dining Terrace, Orchard Beach. Postcard. Collection of Thomas X. Casey. The prominent architect Aymar Embury II and well-known landscape architects Gilmore D. Clarke and Michael Rapuano designed the new complex.

The mayor’s press corps worked from an office specially made for them in the basement of the mansion. The wooden cubicles (replete with whimsical doodles on the adjoining plaster wall) and toilet stall remain today. This subterranean work space was often the coolest part of the building in summer. Russell Owen, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1930 for his news reports on Byrd’s Antarctic expedition, visited the summer city hall in August to interview the mayor. “Certainly the atmosphere is very business-like,” he wrote, “even if two reporters come in laughing and carrying large wooden balls with which they have apparently been bowling on the green.”

1936 Bartow-Pell Formal Garden

Aerial view of the Bartow mansion and gardens, 1936. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum archives

The sizzling summer of 1936 was a time when New Yorkers favored white shoes, bare heads, and Panama hats. Billie Holiday recorded “Summertime,” and Jesse Owens made history at the Berlin Olympics. The ill-fated Hindenburg broke records. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his New Deal lent a hand to Depression-weary Americans while fascism brewed in Europe. For Mayor La Guardia, this was a time of “marked change in him, with nervous pressure relieved, since callers are relatively few, and his prevailing mood in the informal atmosphere in which his work is carried on is gay and bantering,” the Times enthused in August. The mayor had the chance to occasionally grab a rare moment to “sit alone and invite his soul,” wrote journalist Russell Owen, who chatted with La Guardia as the mayor sat at his desk and mused, looking through open French doors at the pretty garden and drinking coffee from a blue china pot. “The air’s better,” he said, “but the atmosphere is the same.”

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Under the Willow Tree: A Schoolgirl Mourning Embroidery

A hauntingly beautiful schoolgirl memorial in Bartow-Pell’s collection has perplexed staff, volunteers, visitors, scholars, and even paranormal investigators for many years. Now, new research has solved some of the mystery.

Walker Memorial

Abigail Walker (1794–1882), Charlestown Academy, Massachusetts. Memorial to Martha Hall Walker, Charles Walker, and George Washington Walker, 1810–11. Silk and watercolor on silk with printed text. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mrs. Arthur Ash 1970.04

Gilt lettering on églomisé glass tells us that this silk-on-silk scene was embroidered by a girl named Abigail Walker. These needlework pictures were usually made in female academies. But where did Abigail attend school? Collectors and scholars William and Sally Gemmill have associated Abigail’s piece with a group of embroideries made between 1810 and 1815 in Massachusetts at the Charlestown Academy under its preceptress, Hannah Spofford. The Gemmills first published their important research in Antiques & Fine Art magazine in 2012, and they were curators of Accomplished Women: Schoolgirl Art from Female Academies in the Early 19th Century, a 2015 exhibition at Bartow-Pell.

The Port Folio 1812

Engraving from The Port Folio, February 1812. Scholar Betty Ring identified this print as the source of a mourning embroidery made by Mary Frost at the Charlestown Academy.

What else have we been able to find out about Abigail? Recent research has uncovered more of her story. Abigail Walker (1794–1882) was born in Charlestown, Massachusetts, to Abigail Johnson and Major Timothy Walker. Her father was a wealthy merchant and state senator. “He was . . . always full of business, interested in commerce, and an operator in real-estate. He owned a great deal of land in the town, which he was constantly improving,” according to Old Charlestown, and was “rated by his townsmen as their richest man.” He also owned the building that housed the co-educational Charlestown Academy, which Abigail (and probably her siblings) attended. Timothy Walker was very active in the community and was a devoted donor to local Congregational churches. At his death, Walker left generous bequests to Harvard College and to the town of Charlestown for planting shade trees. He “was a ruddy-faced, strong-looking man, dignified but stern in his manner . . . with a natural gruffness of voice . . . and dressed in the fashion of his time . . . and usually carrying a handsomely-mounted cane.”

The Walker family lived in a large three-story white house with green blinds, “which was in accordance with the general idea of elegance and good taste at the time.” The residence and its fine landscaped grounds were surrounded by a white wooden fence, and “the estate extended down from Main Street to the [Mystic] river . . . and ‘Walker’s Wharf,’ where for some years a large business in slaughtering, packing, and shipping beef was carried on by the Major.”

Abigail, the eldest daughter, was one of 16 siblings, but only 12 survived to adulthood. One of her brothers, Dr. William Johnson Walker (1790–1865), became a well-known physician and philanthropist. The Walker children grew up in Charlestown alongside the artist and inventor Samuel F. B. Morse (1791–1872), whose father, the Congregational minister Jedidiah Morse, was the Walker family’s pastor and officiated at Abigail’s wedding in 1812. Moreover, William and Sally Gemmill have identified the elder Morse as a trustee of the Charlestown Academy.

PlinthSadly, the Walker family’s wealth and prominence could not protect them against the all-too-common heartbreak of childhood mortality, and by 1803, three of Abigail’s young siblings had died: Martha Hall Walker, 10 months, in 1796; Charles Walker, 14 months, in 1798; and George Washington Walker, 26 months, in 1803. A fourth child—a baby boy named Joshua—died four days after his birth in July 1811. Abigail’s mourning embroidery memorializes the first three deceased children, who died when she was a young child. Because the memorial does not include baby Joshua, we know that it was stitched before his death. Taking the Gemmills’ findings into account, we can conclude that Abigail likely made her needlework picture in 1810 or in early 1811.

Memorial to George Washington

Memorial to George Washington. Designed by Samuel Folwell and probably worked at his wife’s school in Philadelphia. Silk on silk. Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History, Gift of Eleanor and Mabel Van Alstyne. This needlework picture was made sometime after the death of Washington. The composition is somewhat similar to that of the memorial made by Abigail Walker.

Ornamental needlework was an accomplishment that well-to-do young ladies learned in female academies. Pictorial embroideries were made with silk and other expensive materials, placed in fine frames, and proudly displayed on parlor walls. Mourning scenes with weeping willows, urns, and grieving figures became especially popular after the death of George Washington in 1799. Schoolgirls stitched memorials in his memory and created works paying tribute to members of their own families.


Hope points towards heaven in the Walker memorial.


Anonymous (British). Hope, ca. 1790s. Mezzotint and etching. The British Museum

Now let’s turn to the Abigail’s embroidery. The scene teems with symbols of mourning and Christian iconography. The weeping willow tree stands for two concepts. The first is grief, but willows, which grow quickly, are also symbols of rebirth and the Christian belief in everlasting life. Three small trees on the right grow up toward heaven and perhaps represent the souls of the three young children who have died. Moreover, the woman pointing up holds an anchor, which viewers of the period would have immediately recognized as an allegorical symbol for hope as it is defined in the Bible. “Hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast” (Hebrews 6:19). The message of hope is underscored by the words at the base of the plinth, “There is rest in Heaven.”

Mourning figure 1970.04

The mourning figure in the Walker memorial

The taller figure, her head drooped in sorrow, likely represents the children’s mother. She tenderly embraces the urn with one arm and twines a garland of roses around it with her other hand. The roses, whose blossoms will soon wither, are a memento mori that reminds us of the children’s short lives.

Andromache Weeping over the Ashes of Hector

Andromache Weeping over the Ashes of Hector, ca. 1790–1810. Lead-glazed earthenware, Leeds Pottery. Victoria and Albert Museum, London, Given by Miss M. L. Bowdler. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Walker memorial combines Christian imagery with references to classical antiquity. New research has revealed that the design source for the maternal figure appears to be Andromache weeping over the ashes of Hector after he was killed by Achilles in the Trojan War. Although a specific print source for Abigail’s scene has not been found, similar representations appear in ceramic figurines and other objects that depict Andromache embracing her husband’s urn (and sometimes draping it with a garland of roses), such as a mantel clock made around 1783 that is now in the royal collection at Buckingham Palace.

Andromache Weeping over the Ashes of Hector

Thomas Burke (British, 1749–1815), after Angelica Kauffman (Swiss-British, 1741–1807). Andromache Weeping over the Ashes of Hector, 1772. Mezzotint published by William Wynne Ryland (British, 1732–1783). The British Museum

Greek grave stele

Marble grave stele of a little girl, Greek (Classical period), ca. 450–440 B.C. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Fletcher Fund, 1927

Educated people in the early 19th century, who often had a well-grounded knowledge of classical mythology, may have recognized the allusion to Andromache from Homer’s Iliad and the writings of other classical authors, as well as from contemporary works such as Andromache, or The Fall of Troy: A Tragedy in Five Acts. Narrative scenes of Hector and Andromache are sometimes the subject of schoolgirl embroideries, but the Walker piece is a memorial in which the subtle visual reference to Andromache serves as both a reminder of grief and a fashionable nod to the classical world. One could say that Greek tragedy had been refashioned for the early American republic. Furthermore, the two women, who are seen in profile, recall figures on Greek funerary stelae. Their graceful and stylish Grecian gowns and the urn in the antique taste further enhance the picture’s elegant neoclassicism.

The Walker memorial was carefully planned. Following common practice, the faces, arms, and sky were painted in watercolor either by a professional artist or by the teacher. In this case (as the Gemmills found in their research), the faces closely resemble those in other embroideries produced at around the same time under Hannah Spofford at the Charlestown Academy. Abigail used a variety of stitches and silk threads in various shades of green, brown, white, and blue to produce the desired effects of texture, definition, and tonality.

Faces 1970.04

The faces were painted in watercolor by a professional artist or perhaps by a teacher.

The grieving, downcast maternal figure with her ties to earthly life contrasts sharply with the triumphant allegorical figure of Hope, who looks at the sky and points heavenward. This storytelling device with a Christian message doubles as a design element, since the women’s divergent poses add interest and balance to the composition. In addition, the drooping branches of the weeping willow tree echo the bowed head of the mourner, and the coil of rope around the anchor mimics the garland of flowers spiraling around the urn. The deceased children’s names are printed on the plinth along with some Latin abbreviations—OBT (he/she died) and ÆT (aged). Latin, a standard part of a classical education, was offered at the Charlestown Academy. Although it is unknown if Abigail ever studied classical languages, her use of Latin was a further link to the current taste for classical antiquity as well as a sign of her accomplishments and position in society.

On October 1, 1812, Abigail Walker married Samuel Turell Armstrong (1784–1850). The 18-year-old bride was ten years younger than her new husband, who was a well-known publisher and bookseller of religious works in Charlestown and Boston. In later years, he was the lieutenant governor and acting governor of the state of Massachusetts and the mayor of Boston. Armstrong was also a longtime deacon at the Old South Church. The couple had no children. Abigail outlived her husband by more than 30 years. She died in 1882 at the age of 88 at her longtime home on Beacon Street in Boston.

Today, most of the information we have about Abigail revolves around her role as daughter, sister, and wife. Women at that time often lived in the shadow of men, and many did not even have a printed obituary. Sometimes the only way we can learn more about them is through objects like this embroidery, which is a fine reflection of Abigail’s self-expression, creativity, skill, and work ethic, as well as a beautiful memorial to her young siblings.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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The Pleasures of Imagination: R. & W. A. Bartow and the Book Trade in Early 19th-Century New York

Imagine this: you open the door of a small New York City bookseller and publisher on Pearl Street in the 1820s and are greeted by the smell of new leather bindings and fresh printer’s ink. Outside, nearby Franklin Square hums with activity. Welcome to the firm of R. & W. A. Bartow.

Pleasure of Imagination

R. & W. A. Bartow’s price lists boast that volumes in their British Poets series had “an elegant frontispiece and engraved title.”

Sadly, Franklin Square was later demolished, and the Bartows’ book business is long gone, but many questions linger. Why did the Bartow brothers develop an interest in the book trade and how did they finance their business? What did they publish and sell? And what was the world of book production, publishing, and selling like in New York City at that time?


Pearl Street, Between Franklin Square & Oak St., 1835. A. Weingärtner’s Lithography for D. T. Valentine’s Manual, 1859. Art and Picture Collection, The New York Public Library

Robert Bartow (1792­–1868) and his brother William Augustus (1794–1869) grew up on farms—first in an area of Westchester that is now part of the Bronx and later in Fishkill. By 1815, Robert was living in Manhattan, and William had moved to Richmond, Virginia. At that time, the youthful pair worked as commission merchants, acting as “agents for a number of the best manufacturers, [and] are constantly receiving papers of various qualities, which they will sell at the lowest mill prices,” according to a source cited in Bartow-Pell’s Historic Landscape Report. Presumably, the brothers made enough money to finance their move into the book trade, but this is just speculation. In any case, it is easy to see how paper merchants would move into publishing. Furthermore, Robert, in New York City, was based in a major publishing center, and William, in Virginia, was in a strategic location for the distribution of goods to Southern markets.

Robert and William were respectively only 25 and 23 years old in 1817 when they issued the first known title under their imprint and launched their publishing and bookselling business. By 1823, their younger brother George Anthony (1798–1872) had joined them. Almost all of their publications were printed between 1817 and 1823. By 1825–26, Robert and George had given up the book trade and returned to work as commission merchants. William, however, had moved in 1825 back to New York City, where he continued the bookselling operation through the 1820s.


Entrance of the Juvenile Library. Illustration from Visits to the Juvenile Library, or Knowledge Proved to Be the Source of Happiness by Eliza Fenwick, 1805, published by Tabart & Co., London. Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle, The New York Public Library. Benjamin Tabart was a Regency publisher and bookseller whose Juvenile and School Library was on New Bond Street. Like Tabart, publishers in the United States often operated as booksellers. Educational books for children were popular offerings in the American market.

American book publishing was a work in progress during the first quarter of the 19th century. Our national literary identity was still in its infancy, and booksellers and their customers continued the Colonial practice of dependence on popular British works. But some things had changed. Now, instead of hawking expensive imports, enterprising Americans took advantage of the lack of foreign copyright laws in the United States to produce a plethora of British reprints in New York, Philadelphia, and Boston. Piracy was the name of the game. The absence of punishing consequences and the lure of higher profits made the British reprint trade a no-brainer. In addition, Jefferson’s Embargo Act of 1807—which restricted foreign trade during the Napoleonic Wars—and the War of 1812 encouraged Americans to rely on their own manufacturing abilities.


The Printer. Illustration from The Panorama of Professions and Trades by Edward Hazen, 1837. Most of R. & W. A. Bartow’s books were printed by J. Gray & Co. or Gray & Bunce, who took over the Bartows’ business address at 347 Pearl Street when the brothers moved down the street in 1822. It was a close-knit world.

For most of the 18th century, American printing firms shepherded publications through all stages of production, marketing, and distribution. But by the dawn of the 19th century, many in the reprint trade had become “booksellers, specializing in marketing and distribution and leaving the production to others,” according to James N. Green in A History of the Book in America. “The printer had been the central figure in the colonial book trade, but in the early national period the trade quickly came to be dominated by these new publishers.” Robert Bartow and his brothers embodied this fresh approach.

Paper-Maker and Bookbinder

The Paper-Maker, and the Bookbinder. Book production involved several tradesmen including engravers, typesetters, stereotypers (plate makers), printers, and binders. “The folding, gathering, and sewing are usually performed by females.”

The Loves of the Angels

Title page from The Loves of the Angels: A Poem by Thomas Moore, 1823. R. & W. A. & G. Bartow are among numerous co-publishers. A critic in the North American Review (April 1823) grumbled that it had “decidedly more dulness [sic] than anything he has written.”

What books were people reading in the United States? Common non-fiction genres included theology, history, biography, travel, natural history, and science. Poetry—especially British verse—was widely read. The novel had not yet reached its heyday but would soon begin to dominate the fiction market. Meanwhile, Americans enjoyed works by British novelists such as Sir Walter Scott, Oliver Goldsmith, Daniel Defoe, and Maria Edgeworth, as well as the first novels by American author James Fenimore Cooper. The bestselling novel in America for decades, after its publication in the 1790s, was Charlotte Temple, by the Anglo-American writer and educator Susanna Rowson (1762–1824). Theological and liturgical volumes—Bibles, prayer books, and hymnals—from various denominations were also in high demand. Finally, with the new republic’s emphasis on education, there was a thriving market for schoolbooks. Not surprisingly, the Bartow brothers and many of their competitors continued to publish these types of top sellers.

Americans were also aware that it was time to develop their own literary culture. Henry Wheaton addressed the New-York Atheneum—a private library—at its opening in 1824: “A purer and better taste has sprung up among us, instinctively rejecting the ambitious style which threatened to corrupt our literature even before it was formed, and demanding something besides a tame and servile imitation of the English classics.” R. & W. A. Bartow, however, generally did not publish original fiction or look ahead to the future of American literature. Instead, they played it safe with what they knew would sell.

Eastburn catalogue 1818

James Eastburn was a well-known publisher and bookseller who offered an extensive selection of books for sale at his Literary Rooms on Broadway.

Publisher-booksellers sometimes operated circulating libraries that required a subscription and charged a membership fee. James Eastburn, who was one of the co-publishers with the Bartows of The American Monthly Magazine and Critical Review, was the proprietor of the Literary Rooms, a well-known subscription library on the corner of Pine and Broadway from 1812 to 1823. John Howison (1797–1859), a Scottish author and traveler, penned this description in 1821, which also reveals his unflattering view of the philistine reading habits of New Yorkers:

Mr. Eastburn is the chief bookseller in the city, and he also keeps an establishment called the Literary Rooms, where newspapers and periodical publications, American and British, and a tolerably good library, are constantly at the command of subscribers, who do not, however, appear to frequent the place much, except to peruse the daily journals. The inhabitants of New York are too deeply engaged in commerce to read much, but there is evidently some demand for books, the most popular productions that issue from the English press being usually republished in that city, or in Philadelphia. The works of Scott, Byron . . . Mrs Opie’s Novels, and books of a similar description, meet with a ready sale.

Durand frontispiece

Asher B. Durand (1796–1886). “Silent and unseen, to pay the mournful tribute of his tears.” Frontispiece, The Pleasures of Imagination and Other Poems by Mark Akenside, published by R. & W. A. Bartow, 1819

And indeed, the market-savvy Bartow firm published a series of works by British poets with engravings by Asher B. Durand and others (discussed in a recent blog post). They also collaborated with some of their competitors on editions of ancient poetry—Ovid’s Metamorphoses and The Works of Virgil. And although R. & W. A. Bartow never independently issued a novel, they were co-publishers of four brand-new reprints published shortly after the first editions appeared in Britain: Peveril of the Peak (1823) by Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832), The Provost (1822) and The Entail (1823) by John Galt (1779–1839), and The Village of Mariendorpt (1821) by Anna Maria Porter (1778–1832), the only work by a woman that the brothers ever published.

The Bartows had close personal connections to the Episcopal Church, and their first major publication was The Book of Common Prayer, According to the Use of the Protestant Episcopal Church (1817), which they reprinted at least twice. They also published items for St. George’s Church, where they were communicants, and its rector, the Reverend James Milnor (who married Robert Bartow and Maria Lorillard in 1827).

R. & W. A. Bartow published a smattering of books in other genres, including a well-known Latin grammar, Prosodia (1821), by Manuel Álvares (1526­–1582). (The brothers had probably received a classical education like their younger sibling Edgar, who attended Mr. Barnes’s Classical School.) They also reprinted and sold several music books. In Richmond, William A. Bartow published a play called Oscar Fitz-James: A Drama in Three Acts, by “A Native of Virginia, a Youth in the 18th Year of His Age.” And Robert, William, and their brother George were co-publishers with several other firms of Book-keeping in the True Italian Form of Debtor and Creditor (1823). R. & W. A. & G. Bartow also issued a 13-volume legal reference series, The Statutes at Large, Being a Collection of All the Laws of Virginia. A rare copy of R. & W. A. Bartow’s Exchange List for October 1820 is in the Patricia D. Klingenstein Library at the New-York Historical Society.

The short story of R. & W. A. Bartow is just a chapter in the history of the book trade, but it helps reveal how the industry worked in early 19th-century New York.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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A Taste for Poetry: R. & W. A. Bartow, Asher B. Durand, Mozart’s Librettist, and British Verse

Poetry got people excited in the 19th century. Some readers appreciated its literary value, and others enjoyed it as a fashionable pursuit. It could cross the line between highbrow intellectualism and pop culture. Poetry set a certain tone and created a mood. A love of literature, the allure of fantasy, the pleasures of the mind, or the swing of cultural zeitgeist—all of this and more informed society’s passion for poetry.

Pleasures of Hope 1820 title page

Title page, The Pleasures of Hope and Other Poems by Thomas Campbell, published by R. & W. A. Bartow, 1820. Michele Pekenino was an engraver who worked with Asher B. Durand on Bartow editions. According to Durand’s son, “Pekenino wrote an elegant script and boasted that [one of] Napoleon’s treaties had been engrossed by him.” It is possible that Pekenino was the unnamed engrosser for plates like this one.


A sampling of poetry volumes published by W. & A. Bartow. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum

The firm of R. & W. A. Bartow eagerly jumped on the poetry bandwagon. The youthful brothers Robert (1792­–1868) and William Augustus Bartow (1794–1869) had left the family farm in their early 20s to resell goods as commission merchants before joining the book trade—Robert in New York City and William in their Southern office in Richmond, Virginia. Reprint editions of British poetry were a safe bet in the American marketplace, and the siblings knew a good money-making opportunity when they saw it. (Foreign copyrights would not be protected under United States law until 1891.) In 1821, the Bartow firm published its most ambitious project—The British Poets, in Sixteen Volumes—which included works by Robert Burns, William Cowper, Oliver Goldsmith, Thomas Gray, and others in handsome leather-bound volumes with gilt stamping and marbled endpapers. The series—like other volumes of poetry produced by R. & W. A. Bartow—featured fine engraved frontispieces and portraits of the authors.

A. B. Durand after Richard Westall

Asher B. Durand, after Richard Westall. Frontispiece, The Pleasures of Hope and Other Poems by Thomas Campbell, published by R. & W. A. Bartow, 1820

Asher B. Durand (1796–1886) produced some of the Bartows’ illustrated plates. These were mostly copies of British book illustrations, including many by the artist Richard Westall (1765–1836). But the frontispiece in Mark Akenside’s The Pleasures of the Imagination, published by R. & W. A. Bartow in 1819, was an original piece “drawn by Durand” and engraved by “P. Maverick, Durand & Co.” Durand began his artistic career as an engraver working first as an apprentice and later as a partner with Peter Maverick (1780–1831). After the pair parted ways in 1820, Durand continued to work under the Bartow imprint. Durand’s brother John (1792–1820), who died at age 28, also made some engravings for Bartow editions. Asher B. Durand, who switched to painting in the 1830s, has been named as the artist of a lost oil portrait of the Bartow brothers’ mother, Clarina Bartow, née Bartow (who married her second cousin Augustus), which once belonged to Robert, but this attribution is undocumented.

Robert Burns by Pekenino

Michele Pekenino, Robert Burns. Illustration for The Works of Robert Burns, vol. I, published by R. & W. A. Bartow, 1821

Durand’s friend Michele Pekenino engraved authors’ portraits for the Bartows’ British Poets series. In The Life and Times of A. B. Durand (1894), John Durand recounted the Italian’s lively interactions with his father and Robert Bartow:

One more correspondent . . . who annoyed and yet amused him [was] . . . an Italian named Michael Pekenino; he was a stipple engraver and had a table in the studio of my father, who harboured and helped him along mainly because he was a foreigner and unused to the ways of the country. “Pekenino,” said my father, “sharpened a graver in the most wonderful manner. He told me that if he could engrave like me, he would go to———with the greatest pleasure,” as he expressed it in his Dantean phraseology. Pekenino was often employed by New York publishers, and particularly by a Mr. Bartow, for whom he engraved the heads of certain English poets to illustrate editions of their works republished in this country at that time. How the Italian regarded his patron may be gathered from the following specimen of his English, taken from a letter dated May 22, 1822:

Dear Asher,—

Intreating Heaven, threatening Hell, cannot induce that adamantean Bartow to send me some money, and what is most infernal to my circumstance, I cannot get an answer from that obstinate being—in better terms, mortal stone! That publisher of poets did not . . . soften his heart at all in reading them! . . . I will write to him once more yet. I will, and it will be the last he shall receive not arrainged [sic] in good English.

Durand and Pekenino also engraved each other’s portraits, “Pekenino making his engraving after a portrait by [William] Jewett, while my father made his after a portrait of Pekenino drawn by himself,” explained John Durand. When Pekenino needed money before his return to Italy, he unabashedly took advantage of the craze for Simón de Bolívar, and “the plate of my father’s head being in his possession, he erased the title of ‘A. B. Durand’ and . . . substituted the title of ‘Bolivar.’ Many were sold.”

The Minstrel London 1816

James Mitan, after Richard Westall. Illustration for The Minstrel by James Beattie, published by John Sharpe, London, 1816. The scene in this British edition is the source for the frontispiece engraved by Robert C. Bruen for R. & W. A. Bartow’s reprint (pictured below).

Robert C. Bruen apprenticed with Peter Maverick along with Asher B. Durand and was also an engraver for R. & W. A. Bartow. Sadly, Bruen “became deranged, and in the winter walked upon the ice of the river into the water and was drowned,” according to William Dunlap in his 1834 book on American design.

R. C. Bruen, engraver, The Minstrel

Robert C. Bruen, after Richard Westall. Frontispiece for The Minstrel by James Beattie, published by R. & W. A. Bartow, 1821. This copy of an earlier British engraving is accompanied by a portrait of the author by Michele Pekenino in the Bartow edition.


Richard Westall, George Gordon Byron, 6th Baron Byron, 1813. Oil on canvas. NPG 4243 © National Portrait Gallery, London

Although the Bartows did not include Lord Byron (1788–1824) in their British Poets series, they did not overlook him. And why would they? Byron was yesterday’s bad boy rock star. As his paramour Lady Caroline Lamb famously put it, he was “mad, bad and dangerous to know.” His works were sure to sell. In 1819, at the suggestion of his Italian mistress Teresa Guiccioli, Byron wrote The Prophecy of Dante in Ravenna. It was first published in America in 1821, and that same year, R. & W. A. Bartow issued La Profezia di Dante, an Italian translation of Byron’s work by the colorful poet, librettist, and Italian émigré Lorenzo da Ponte (1749–1838).

It was rare for the Bartow firm to publish original material (in this case, the added translation into Italian). The risk-averse brothers ensured the book’s profitability through a number of subscribers, whose names are printed at the back of the volume along with the number of copies they ordered. The impressive list includes prominent New Yorkers with connections to Da Ponte, such as Clement C. Moore, William Harris (the president of Columbia College), and members of the Livingston family. Perhaps Da Ponte solicited many of the subscribers, and the Bartows served as what was later known as a “vanity” publisher. In any case, the book was clearly a success because it went into an enhanced second edition the following year that included a frontispiece engraved by Pekenino and an appendix with Da Ponte’s own verse.

L. da Ponte by N. Rogers artist, M. Pekenino engraver

Michele Pekenino, after Nathaniel Rogers. Lorenzo da Ponte. This portrait of Da Ponte is the frontispiece of Byron’s La Profezia di Dante, 2nd edition, translated by Da Ponte and published by R. & W. A. Bartow in 1822.

In Europe, Da Ponte was known as Mozart’s librettist for Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Cosí fan tutte and was a friend of Casanova. Debts prompted his move to New York City in the early 19th century, where, like the engraver Michele Pekenino, he was part of the city’s community of Italian émigrés. One day in 1807, Da Ponte met the writer and scholar Clement C. Moore (1779–1863) in a New York City bookshop, and a friendship ensued. Moore’s father was president of Columbia College, and the connection eventually led to Da Ponte’s appointment as the college’s first professor of Italian. The irrepressible Da Ponte also brought Italian opera to New Yorkers and opened an Italian bookshop on Broadway. His collaboration with the Bartow brothers must have been a thrilling moment for the young publishers.

Profezia, 2nd ed.Da Ponte was inspired to translate Byron’s The Prophecy of Dante when a pupil gave him a copy after the death of a beloved son. This account is from Da Ponte’s memoirs:

I not so much read, as devoured, all four cantos, without once putting aside the book from my hands. A certain analogy . . . between Dante’s experiences and mine, inspired me with a will to translate that work into Italian verse, and I straightway applied myself to the task. But to escape a spot that reminded me at every instant of the causes of my grief, I suggested to my student-guests withdrawing with them to some country place. . . .The retreat of ours was situated on a country estate belonging to the illustrious and honorable family of the Livingstons. . . . I rose from bed in the morning at sunrise and spent an hour reading some Italian prose writer or poet, now with my pupils and now with my children. I made my rural breakfast in their company, and a half hour afterwards, I would find some spot, now under a peach, now under an apple tree, and still weeping, translate a portion of that poem which would ever add a touch of sweetness to my tears.

Da Ponte dedicated the translation to “Madamagella Giulia [Julia] Livingston,” who was one of his host’s daughters. In Lorenzo da Ponte: The Extraordinary Adventures of the Man Behind Mozart, Rodney Bolt writes that “Lorenzo sent La Profezia de Dante to Lord Byron with a letter begging forgiveness for his audacity, but confessing he had not been able to withstand the temptation to translate it. No reply from Byron exists, but Giacomo Ombrosi, the American Vice-Consul in Florence, wrote to Da Ponte praising the translation and saying that he had delivered a copy to the poet on encountering him in Livorno.” If they knew, the Bartows must have been delighted.

The firm of R. & W. A. Bartow was just one of many publishers of verse in a great age for poetry. Today, we remember their work as we celebrate National Poetry Month.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Fresh Farm Milk from a Historic Estate: How a New York City Garden Club Helped the War Effort in 1918

Cows Grazing at Nevis

Dairy cows at Nevis, Journal of the International Garden Club, June 1918

It was time to step up. One hundred years ago, America had entered the First World War, and patriotic civilians were eager to contribute on the home front to help defeat the Germans. Meanwhile, milk prices in New York City had skyrocketed, and the local dairy industry was accused of price fixing. The most vulnerable victims of this controversial price hike were poverty-stricken families living in Manhattan tenements. Thankfully, a group of philanthropic horticultural enthusiasts joined with the New York City government, a well-known dairy expert, and a historic country estate to do their part in the war effort by providing fresh milk to needy mothers and children.


Sydney Percy Kendrick (British, 1874–1955). Mrs. Charles Frederick Hoffman, ca. 1930. Oil on canvas. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Gift of Mrs. Aymar Johnson, 1978.02. This posthumous portrait was painted from a photograph taken of Zelia in evening dress before a 1920s function in London and was given to Bartow-Pell by her daughter.

A few years after the International Garden Club (IGC) had established its Bronx headquarters at the newly restored Bartow mansion in bucolic Pelham Bay Park, the United States was at war. Subsequently—inspired by the British Red Cross using country houses as hospitals—the group decided in March 1918 “to offer its club house and grounds for an open air and convalescent hospital for our returning wounded, to be run in cooperation with the Red Cross Society, the Fordham Hospital and the New Hospital built by Columbia University which has been taken over by the Federal Government,” the club’s Journal reported. The charge was led by IGC president Zelia Hoffman (1867–1929), but soon she received a letter politely informing her that the army medical corps had declined the club’s proposal. “My dear Mrs. Hoffman,” wrote Lt. Col. C. H. Connor, “I sincerely regret that we cannot, at this time, give you a definite acceptance of your very generous and patriotic offer, but the Red Cross is not in a position to state as to just how much of this work, in the care of convalescents, will be delegated to them. The present attitude of the War Department is that they expect to treat most of the wounded in France. . . . Those who can never go back as soldiers will be returned to the United States where they will be treated in military hospitals.”

IGC Milk Committee

Journal of the International Garden Club, June 1918

But the IGC was determined to make a difference. So they teamed up with the Mayor’s Committee of Women on National Defense on another urgent wartime cause—providing milk to poor families in New York City. Mrs. Hoffman—who held leadership positions in both organizations—sent a letter to prospective supporters asking for donations:

The most serious question of the moment is the need of cheap milk in the crowded tenement district on the East Side. . . . The price of milk has become prohibitive owing to War conditions, and as a War Measure, the Mayor’s Committee of Women on National Defense for the Bronx is arranging to pasture several hundred cows on the available meadow-land through the Bronx. Motor trucks will carry the milk daily to stations on the Upper East Side, where it can be sold at a reasonable rate to these people of the crowded tenement section. The saving of our infant population and the maintaining in health of our little children is as necessary a War measure as the care of our wounded, and for this purpose a supply of good, cheap milk is an absolute necessity. Several motor trucks will be needed at $900.00 each to carry the milk every day to the stations, and gifts of these and contributions are asked towards the purchase of cows and for the labor to maintain them during the duration of the War.

Mayor's Committee Officers

Officers of the Mayor’s Committee of Women on National Defense, New York, 1918

From the start, publicity was limited “to the bare statement of work accomplished,” Elisabeth Marbury, spokeswoman of the mayor’s committee explained. “To establish milk stations and to feed the babies struck us as more commendable than to portray dairy farms à la Marie Antoinette herding cows with gilded hoofs and be-ribboned horns.”

New York Tribune

New York Tribune, January 8, 1918

But there was more to the sky-high milk prices than the war. A seemingly endless stream of newspaper articles chronicled a price-fixing scandal that engulfed the New York dairy industry beginning in late 1917, and this led to investigations by the district attorney, who indicted dairymen on conspiracy charges for violating anti-trust laws. The New York Times quoted Mayor John F. Hylan in December 1918: “When we find men combining to extort blood money at the expense of little children, then it is time for public officials to persistently pursue these culprits to the end that the violators of the law pay the penalty, the price of milk be reduced and the lives of little children saved.”

Milk was universally recognized as essential to infant, child, and maternal health. In January 1918, the Times reported that former President Theodore Roosevelt “wanted to see the most radical action taken to secure an ample supply of milk to every child in the city.” And Alice Lakey (1857–1935), a prominent activist for “pure food” who had helped enact landmark consumer protection legislation, believed that the “use of dairy products” was a “war duty [so] that other foods may be conserved for the fighting forces,” the Times reported in a story on the National Milk and Dairy Farm Exposition in May 1918. “It is our desire to acquaint all women with the food value of milk,” she said.

Dairy cow at Salisbury, Red Cross 1918

Dairy cow at the American Red Cross Hospital Farm, Salisbury, England, 1918. Captain Frank S. Peer of Ithaca, N.Y., director, is shown with a Jersey cow. This was the breed favored by Edward Burnett, the dairy expert who advised the IGC at Nevis. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-anrc-10205

Mrs. Hoffman and the IGC forged ahead with their plans for a dairy, and they worked quickly to find a suitable location. According to the IGC Journal of June 1918:

E. Burnett

Brady & Handy, photographers. E[dward]. Burnett, detail from composite portraits of the 50th Congress Massachusetts Delegation, 1887–89. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-USZ62-127916

Mr. Edward Burnett, the eminent dairy expert, was invited to cooperate and inaugurate the work. Owing to the expense and lack of time it was found impracticable to construct cow stables at Bartow, and it was decided to lease a private place with an already established dairy. Mr. Burnett was directed to purchase the cows and has been able to obtain some very fine specimens. The War Committee of the Garden Club has been most fortunate in obtaining the beautiful old Hamilton place “Nevis” at Irvington on the Hudson, with an up-to-date dairy just built.

Edward Burnett (1849–1925), a Harvard graduate and former U.S. congressman from Massachusetts, was an agricultural and dairy expert who advised wealthy estate owners and worked alongside Frederick Law Olmsted (1822–1903) at Biltmore, George Vanderbilt’s massive estate in North Carolina. Shortly before America entered the war, Olmsted’s son Frederick Jr. (1870–1957) and the IGC had discussed creating a master garden plan for the grounds at Bartow, so perhaps it was through the Olmsted connection that Burnett joined the IGC dairy project.


Nevis, the former Hudson River estate of Alexander Hamilton’s son James, Journal of the International Garden Club, June 1918

Nevis, 1861

Nevis, the home of James Hamilton, The Art-Journal, August 1, 1861

Although the IGC was unable to house a dairy at Bartow, they found the perfect solution at Nevis, the former estate of Alexander Hamilton’s son James (1788–1878) in the suburban village of Irvington. Nevis, which was named after the elder Hamilton’s birthplace, featured a large Greek Revival house built in 1835 and 68 acres of land overlooking the Hudson River. A modern dairy, ample pastureland, and close proximity to New York City were just what the IGC needed. Fortunately, they were able to lease the house, and in September 1918 Zelia Hoffman reported:

We started on May 1, 1918, and for three months—May, June and July—have sent between six and seven thousand quarts of the very best certified milk to New York, this being a daily average of about seventy-two quarts. The cost of production has been about two-thirds of what it would have cost to have bought the same amount of milk, and it would have been impossible to have obtained such milk as 98 per cent of all milk sold in New York now is pasteurized (that horrid condition of a wonderful natural product), and certified milk of the kind we have been producing can only be obtained in small quantities at a very high price.


Sidebar from “Putting Baby’s Welfare on the City Map,” New York Tribune, June 16, 1918. The New York Nursery and Child’s Hospital was one of the recipients of milk from the IGC’s dairy in the summer of 1918.

Quart bottles were “sold [at cost] and given away to patients of the maternity center, Union Settlement, 237 East 104th Street.” In addition, “24 quarts a day have been sent to the Vanderbilt Clinic, department of Social Service.” A third beneficiary was the New York Nursery and Child’s Hospital, whose nursing superintendent Miss Rye Morley wrote: “My dear Mrs. Hoffman, I want very much, in behalf of our babies and mothers, to extend to you our very sincere appreciation for the generous supply of milk, which comes to us daily . . . I cannot tell you what this means.”

Before and After

Illustrations from “Putting Baby’s Welfare on the City Map,” New York Tribune, June 16, 1918. Journalists urged public officials, women’s organizations, and others to support infant and maternal health during wartime.

Women’s History Month is the perfect time to celebrate the work of the IGC Milk Committee under the leadership of Zelia Hoffman and their contribution to the health and well-being of women and children during the First World War.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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Portrait of a Patron: Isaac Bell and Saint-Mémin

Isaac Bell with partial mat

Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin. Isaac Bell, 1797. Charcoal (black chalk?) and white chalk with pink wash. Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum, Lent by Alison Hess, great-great-great-granddaughter-in-law of the sitter

Who originally slept in Bartow-Pell’s Lannuier bed?

Isaac Bell (1768–1860) and his wife, Mary Ellis Bell (1791–1871), of New York City commissioned the bedstead from Charles-Honoré Lannuier (1779–1819) upon their marriage in 1810, and the cabinetmaker completed it between 1812 and 1819. Lannuier was trained in Paris and arrived in New York City in 1803 knowing how to make furniture in the newest and most fashionable Classical style. He died prematurely in 1819, but in his brief career he became the finest cabinetmaker in the United States, making pieces of incredible refinement, sophistication, and beauty, which survive today in museum collections. He was patronized by the wealthiest strata of American society, who were eager to be in step with international style.


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

A portrait of Isaac Bell by another French émigré, Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin (1770–1852), is now on display at Bartow-Pell, thanks to a recent loan from a descendant.

Isaac Bell 1797 engraving

Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin. Isaac Bell, 1797. Engraving. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon

Isaac Bell was born in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1768, the son of a prosperous merchant. As Loyalists, the Bell family moved to New York City and thence to New Brunswick, Canada, during the American Revolution, but Isaac Bell returned to New York in 1792 and made a handsome sum by sailing as supercargo—the officer who managed and sold the ship’s cargo—on three voyages to China beginning in 1798. In 1810, when Isaac Bell and Mary Ellis Bell married, the much-younger bride was a youthful 19 years old and the middle-aged groom was a wealthy merchant. His successful shipping company filled the coffers of the couple’s bank account and allowed them to indulge in top-quality luxury goods for their home at 14 Greenwich Street in the “newest fashion” (or, as a French-English dictionary translated the phrase in 1800, “dans le goût le plus moderne”). Neoclassicism was the choice of modern, cultured people in the early 19th century. The Bells were enthusiastic patrons of the new style, and the couple’s timing could not have been better for commissioning articles of sophisticated beauty in the classical taste by the best artists and craftsmen. Their stylish home featured a set of chairs by Duncan Phyfe, Lannuier’s bedstead as well as a pair of card tables by him, and a portrait of Mrs. Bell by John Vanderlyn (1775–1852). And, of course, there was the 1797 portrait of Isaac Bell by Saint-Mémin. According to Lisa Sturm-Lind in her book Actors of Globalization: New York Merchants in Global Trade, 1784–1812, “Bell was rich and popular and socialized with New York City’s best circles. He was an intimate friend of Alexander Hamilton who frequently dined at his home.” Today, Bell’s papers are housed in the Archival Collections of the Columbia University Libraries.


John Vanderlyn (1775–1852). Mary Ellis Bell (Mrs. Isaac Bell), ca. 1827. Oil on canvas. National Gallery of Art, Gift of Evangeline Bell Bruce, Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington


Edme Quenedey. L’appareil du physiognotrace, reproduction of an original ca. 1788 drawing in the Bibliothèque National de France, Paris. From Edme Quenedey des Riceys (Aube): Portraitiste au Physionotrace by René Hennequin, 1926–27. Source / Bibliothèque nationale de France

L’Amérique ou la guillotine? During the upheavals of the French Revolution, it’s no wonder that Saint-Mémin, a member of the nobility, chose to go into exile. He eventually joined other French émigrés in New York City, where there was a booming market for luxury goods and a wealthy merchant class with a passion for everything French. The savvy jeune homme with a talent for drawing and a penchant for technology quickly turned to engravings and physiognotrace profile portraiture to earn a living in the New World. The physiognotrace, a mechanical device that allowed artists to trace a sitter’s profile, was invented in late 18th-century France by Gilles-Louis Chrétien (1754–1811), a cellist at the court of Versailles.

Saint-Mémin had been born in Dijon to a wealthy Burgundian family of art collectors and bibliophiles. As a teenager, he joined the Gardes-Françaises, a select regiment that served as palace guards for Louis XVI under the ancien régime but disbanded after the fall of the Bastille in 1789, and the family fled to Switzerland a year later upon the abolition of the nobility. In October 1793, Saint-Mémin, his father, and their valet arrived in New York City, and within the next few years, the fledgling artist began his career as an engraver and portraitist. Ellen G. Miles, the author of Saint-Mémin and the Neoclassical Profile Portrait in America, suggests that he may have received some training at the art school in Dijon founded by the French painter François Devosge. It is also possible that he took art lessons at the École Royale Militaire in Paris, where he could have acquired drafting skills for making maps and precise topographical drawings. In addition, Saint-Mémin taught himself the art of engraving from an encyclopedia (almost certainly Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie).

Saint-Memin self-portrait

Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin. Self-Portrait, 1801. Engraving. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-pga-13324

Saint-Mémin’s first works were engravings of town plans, but in 1796 he began a year-long partnership in New York with fellow French émigré Thomas Bluget de Valdenuit (1763–1846), who had sat for Chrétien, the inventor of the physiognotrace, and his partner Edme Quenedey (1756–1830) in Paris. In New York, Saint-Mémin and Valdenuit offered profile portraits made with the “celebrated Physiognotrace of Paris, and in a style never introduced before in this country,” which they promoted in the January 1797 New York Daily Advertiser and in other newspapers. Their shrewd marketing targeted well-to-do clients swept up in the Francophile craze of the new American republic and attracted the public’s attention with the novelty of new technology. A sitter could buy a set that comprised the original portrait, the engraved plate, and 12 engravings. The drawings were often housed in gilt-wood frames with reverse-painted black verre eglomisé (glass) mats ornamented with gold leaf.


Advertisement for Saint-Mémin’s portraits. Aurora & General Advertiser, Philadelphia, January 8, 1799. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-pga-13727


Christopher Scheiner (1575–1650). Engraving of a pantograph in Pantographice, seu ars delineandi, Rome, 1631. Scheiner was the inventor of this mechanical device, which could copy and re-size an image.

According to Miles, “In the partnership, Valdenuit made the drawings and Saint-Mémin the engravings.” Using the physiognotrace, the artist began by outlining the sitter’s profile in graphite on paper that had been coated with a pink wash made of water, white chalk, and a little red pigment to produce a smooth surface. Then he completed the drawing by hand in black chalk or charcoal with white chalk highlights. The engraver reduced and copied the finely detailed, large-scale original to a copperplate using another machine called a pantograph. Sitters loved the results, which produced accurate likenesses before the age of photography. Saint-Mémin and Valdenuit initiated what would become a highly popular trend, and demand for profiles began to rise. Soon other artists in America started using similar devices, including Charles Willson Peale, who made silhouette portraits at his museum in Philadelphia with a machine that combined a physiognotrace and a pantograph. After Valdenuit returned to France in September 1797, Saint-Mémin continued the business in New York on his own. The drawing of Isaac Bell on loan to Bartow-Pell was made in 1797, a year in which both Valdenuit and Saint-Mémin produced original chalk portraits. Bell’s likeness was made when he was in his late 30s, well before his marriage in 1810.

Theodosia Burr, 1796

Charles Balthazar Julien Févret de Saint-Mémin. Theodosia Burr, 1796. Engraving. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Paul Mellon. Theodosia Bartow Burr Alston (1783–1813) was the daughter of Aaron Burr and a relative of Robert Bartow on her mother’s side.

In 1798, Saint- Mémin moved with his parents and a sister to Burlington, New Jersey. He established his portrait business in nearby Philadelphia and enjoyed even greater success than in New York. However, competition increased as profile portraits grew in popularity, and in 1803 Saint-Mémin began working as an itinerant artist, traveling from his home in Burlington to pursue new clients in Baltimore, Washington D.C., Richmond, and Charleston. By 1810, he was back in New York, and his artistic career was winding down. Finally, suffering from eyestrain, he stopped engraving and limited himself to painting a smattering of now-lost portraits and landscapes. As a portraitist in Federal America, Saint-Mémin had produced more than 900 profiles from 1796 to 1810. His sitters included famous people such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, as well as French émigrés, Native Americans, military officers, and well-to-do Americans from fashionable society. After the fall of Napoleon and the restoration of the monarchy in 1814, Saint-Mémin returned to France and stopped working as an artist. In 1817, he became director of the museum in his native Dijon, a position he held until his death in 1852.


Intaglio portrait of a Woman. Roman, late 1st century B.C. Sard (a type of chalcedony). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Charles Butt Gift, 1997. The origins of profile portraiture can be traced to classical antiquity and objects like this intaglio.

Profile portraits were commonly used in antiquity on Greek vases and on Greek and Roman coins, medallions, cameos, and relief sculpture. Some of these objects later became popular as Grand Tour souvenirs that could be placed in a cabinet of curiosities. These ancient profiles also inspired portraits, engravings, commemorative medals, and other works during the Italian Renaissance and in 18th-century France. The influence of Swiss physiognomist Johann Kaspar Lavater (1741–1801) contributed to the mania for profile portraiture in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Although the tenets of physiognomy—which argued that physical features were linked to character traits—had been introduced in antiquity, Lavater’s essays, first published in German in the 1770s and translated into French and English over the next decade, captured the public imagination and inspired a further passion for profile portraits and silhouette likenesses.

Although Saint-Mémin is well known for his role in introducing the physiognotrace to the United States, he was more than just a technician using a mechanical device. In 1921, art historian Theodore Bolton enthused: “Saint-Mémin’s portraits are of great beauty . . . [and] impress the present writer as do those of Holbein, Clouet and Ingres. This statement is not minimized by the fact that the profile was placed with a machine. Only the mere outline could be obtained in this manner and Saint-Mémin’s power is shown in the assurance of his line and the perfection of his drawing.”

Objects that once belonged to Isaac and Mary Ellis Bell, including those at Bartow-Pell, are fine examples of how a patron of the arts embraced the “newest fashion.” Now, two of these pieces have been reunited.

Margaret Highland, Historian

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