Saturday, November 19, 2011

Well Served: Service in Chancellor Livingston's House

This post is part of a new series on servants in Livingston households. What was it like to serve one of the richest families in the country? What kind of life did these people live? It's a big question, and a blog is not the place for a complete investigation, but I am attacking it bit by bit with some of the interesting pieces I've gathered over the years.


"The servants were busy cleaning and sweeping": Serving at Arryl House On August 14th, 1798 Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz climbed the the steep bluff from the Hudson River to Chancellor Livingston's fashionable mansion, letter of introduction in hand. A keen observer with an interest in darn near everything, Niemcewicz wrote about the first people he encountered:


"It was seven in the morning, the whole family was sleeping, the servants were busy cleaning and sweeping the house."



So imagine the scene: It's about an hour after sunrise, the Livingstons are still asleep, and the servants have already begun the work of the day. They has risen from their basement bedrooms, dressed, and possibly eaten and were already to work. Niemcevicz saw "cleaning and sweeping" happening--but that was on the main floor.


Down in the basement kitchen (which may have looked something like the Hope Lodge kitchen at left), the cook had undoubtedly already poked the fire back up and begun breakfast preparations. Dishes were rattling, and her knife was chopping in away rhythm as she began preparations for mid-day dinner as well.

Was the cook a slave? Yes, probably. While we cannot be positive, the Chancellor owned 12 slaves in the year 1800, and the days of importing fancy French-trained chefs were still a few decades in the future. So the cook, probably a black slave woman, probably well trained in her art, spent most of her time living and sleeping in the kitchen, organizing and overseeing not only the preparation, but also the care and storage of the household's food.

According to Niemcevicz, these "servants" were well-treated. "They serve, it seems, rather from enjoyment than from necessity." Well, I would take that with a grain of salt, but it sounds as though the Chancellor ran a convivial household. His servants were well-fed and well-cared for: "They have the same food and practically the same comforts as do their masters." I doubt that the slaves slept in feather beds or dined on strawberry ices, but suffice to say that they were reasonably well-fed and treated with some affection and care, an assertion that was backed up by other travelers as well.

As I've already mentioned, some of these "servants" could have been paid staff, and some were definitely slaves. What was the ratio? The 1800 census records show that the Chancellor owned 12 slaves. Some of these would have worked outside as oposed to inside the mansion, where Niemcevicz would have encountered them. Some of these may have been the four young slave boys described by and English visitor four years ealier. At that point, they were ages five to twelve, and they were general helpmeets around the house.

But the 1790 census also shows one free female between the ages of 10 and 16 who is unaccounted for who could have been either a paid servant or Harriet Livingston (later Harriet Fulton) who is sometimes said to have staid at Clermont. Two free females between the ages of 26 and 45 are also unaccounted for, and there is no obvious answer to who those could be. One free male age 10 to 16 is also unaccounted for, leaving a total of four possible paid servants in the Chancellor's household in 1800.

If it is the case that there were four paid servants in Livingston's staff in addition to the slaves, what kind of working environment would this have lead to? Who did what? And how were the relationships between coworkers? The questions about daily life are endless.

One other paragraph of interest can be found in the Niemcevicz account of Clermont.


Amongst other servants here there was a quite black Mulatress. Having secretly has an affair with a white carpenter she had a daughter...This girl and other black imps, children of the servants, are treated and favored by their master as if they belonged to the family.


First of all, this tells us who else was filling out the household at Clermont: little children. The servants were responsible for watching their children as best they could while they worked, and these children played where they could encounter the Livingstons and their guests. This probably meant that they were not playing in the kitchen (where few guests would consider even setting foot), but more likely outside where they were not underfoot.

This passage also references two intimate relationships between black and white New York residents. The "Mulatress" was a woman of African and European descent, herself the product of an earlier relationship. According to Niemcevicz she had "a secret affair with a white carpenter," though as an inquisitive visitor, I wonder how many details the Livingstons were willing to share with him--or even how many they knew. This brief summation does not explain the complexities of human relationships and interaction. I wonder what the whole story was?

At any rate, Niemcevicz levels little or no judgement on the woman for her relationship outside of marriage; as a slave, legal marriage (had she desired it) was not an option for her, and the burden of care of their daughter fell to her. Now her personal life was on display, a point of interest for travelers from foreign countries.

Other mixed race relationships are known within the Livingston households. Henry Beekman Livingston, the Chancellor's younger brother, is said to have fathered numerous illegitimate children, some of whom with African American mothers. Henry's maladjusted and sometimes violent behavior was scandalous all around however (he was practically disowned by his mother), and he can hardly be used as an example that explains the broader Livingston family.

An additional relationship was uncovered in the 1990s between Philip the Signer's son (Philip, of course) and a Jamaican woman that he kept as a slave.  Their decedents have been kind enough to share their story.

All in all, Niemcevicz's description of Clermont and its "servants" is one of the most colorful available to us, perhaps matched only by William Strickland's visit four years earlier. It paints a somewhat rosie look at the Livingston's relationships with their slaves, omitting stories like that of Robin, a slave in Margaret Beekman Livingston's house who was nearly sold south for his troublesome behavior.

Niemcevicz's description nevertheless includes valuable information about the background life of Clermont, not just the glittering family that owned it, but the men, women, and children who polished it until it shone.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Growing up Livingston: The Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen, part 9

Little Peggy was no longer a baby, but a little girl, growing up in one of the most wealthy and notable households in the northern United States. In December of 1785, while her mother Nancy was attempting to rouse herself from a crushing depression, Peggy was turning four years old (at right, a contemporary portrait by English artist Arthur Devis).


Despite being far from her mother and caught in the center of dreadful custody battle, Peggy was surrounded by caring adults in the home of her grandmother. By this time, Margaret Beekman Livingston was 61-year-old widow with an empty nest. The sparkling face of a little grand daughter might have been just what she needed by her side. She doted on the girl a good bit, calling her "so beloved a Child," and often complimented her to others. "The old Lady supposes her to be a prodigy of good sense," wrote Nancy's brother Tommy once.


By all accounts, the Livingston household was a loving one in which to grow up. When Tommy visited Peggy at her grandmother's house in New York City, he decsribed a visit in which all love and attention was focused on the beloved little girl.

..she seated herself very much at ease on my lap & held up her little ruby lips, as often as I wished to kess them, which was every minute...the old Lady [Margaret Beekman Livingston] could not keep her hands off her, but almost smothered her with kisses.


She was the darling of all who visited the household, trotted out to charm the Bon Mond of eighteenth-century New York (now also the capital of the new nation). But during these visits Peggy was also learning the social skills which were expected to aid her in adulthood. She was escorted into the parlour for polite visits, where she was allowed to play on the floor, talk to the adults, and climb into their laps. Here she began learning polite language and manners, as in Tommy's description from the same 1785 letter:


She takes the round two or three time in the Evening to dispense her Curtesys [curtsies] and her kisses to all her uncles and aunts, whom she mentions by name before she makes her curtesy...


With grown-up assistance, the little girl even got to hold her very own tea party, inviting "20 young misses" "by card 3 days before." The party was lavish, thrown by her mother Nancy when Peggy was given leave to spend the winter and spring of 1787 in Philadelphia (surely a great excitement for both mother and daughter!).


Sewing and needlework were more skills that Peggy needed to learn. Although often taught at girls' schools, it is likely she would have practised her skills at home alongside her female family members. Peggy's mother also regularly recorded working on decorative needlework, including tambor so she would have seen adults around her doing similar work. Peggy was starting with more basic work however. "Ask her to show you her pocket [handkercheif] which she has hemmed [be] Surpris[ed] how well it is done," wrote her grandmother Margaret.

Peggy had long shown an appreciation for music, something near and dear to the hearts of the eighteenth century wealthy, and now she was learning to take part. She "sings 6 songs," wrote Dr. Shippen of his grandaughter, accompanied by the household piano forte. At just five years old, this was a good accomlishment! In addition to personal pleasure, when Peggy got bigger singing at social gatherings could entertain friends and gain the ear of a sensible gentleman, a scene often played out in Jane Austen's novels in the years ahead. Music was considered an appropriate outlet for women as well as men, and Peggy's cousins, Besty and Margaret Maria Livingston were both to study music in the years to come as well.


Dancing, another vital social skill during the period, had also been part of her education. In April, at her tea party, she "danced a cotillion well," and later we hear that "Miss Binghamton & Miss Livingston ...have been dancing minuets & Cotillions..." on March 17th.

Her education also included more formal studies. "Peggy was perfectly well at school," reported Nancy's uncle. A variety of schools were available to wealthy girls at this point, but Peggy was most likely learning at least reading and religion. When sending the little girl off to her mother late in 1786, Margaret Beekman Livingston wrote, "Her book do not suffer her to neglect" when describing the importance of her studies in a list of instructions. (See the Metropolitan Museum of Art for the full Peale portrait and credits)

It is not documented, but it is likely, that Peggy sometimes had her cousins for playmates when she was with her grandmother. The Chancellor's daughters Betsy and Margaret Maria were a year older and two years younger, respectively. Although the Chancellor and his wife did not rebuild their home at Clermont until the 1790s, their visits to his mother would have brought the girls together. It is also possible that Harriet Livingston (eventually to become Fulton) was sometimes with the party, as there is one reference to her being in the care of Chancellor Livingston for a time. In Philadelphia, her mother's shining social connections wouldhave provided her with a wealth of girls her own age (think of those 20 tea party guests!) to play with as well.

All of this was to the good, but the fact remained that here was that here was a little girl, caught in between fueding parents, and shuttled from guardian to guardian at various points of the year. She was occassionally visited by her father, whom nobody seemed to like or trust anymore because of his frightening behavior. And for half the year she knew her mother only through letters and presents. Most people seemed to view her situation with pity and indulge her perhaps more than was healthy.


It was soon worked out that Peggy would spend summers with her grandmother Margaret Beekman Livingston at Clermont and winters with her mother in Philadelphia. In between, she was passed from person to person. "Your Daughter shall [be home] on Sat under the care of her Uncle Tillotson & my Dinah who is very careful & tender of her," wrote Margaret in 1786," and then from her Uncle Lee, "Our dear little Peggy is expected hourly with her Aunt Montgomery & Mrs. Lee will speedily bring her next week."

So what was life like for little Peggy? It was full of opportunities. She had access to good education, the people with the best connections, and the lively parties that would prepare her for her future. It was full of life's luxuries, doll's from France, a pet dog, and music from harps, harpsichords, and piano fortes.

But it was also confusing. Her parents were warring. Her father was pretty well cast out of the family. Her mother was emotionally distraught. She went from guardian to guardian and home to home. That her large family universally showered her with love may have helped to distract her from this fact, but without continuity, she did get a bit unruly. Children are both fragile and resilient, and if nothing else she grew up knowing that she belonged to an important class of people. She grew up surrounded by the bon mond, as Nancy's friend called it, the "good world," where there was much to see and much to learn.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Well Served: Servants in the Eighteenth Century, #1

(Please excuse my little hiatus during October. Between assembling costumes, writing scripts, and rehearsing ghosts, the Ghost Tours quite devoured my time! You may be glad to know that our tours were quite thronged with people and well worth the effort. But back to the history!)

We talk a lot about the Livingstons and the Shippens, and the Van Rensselaers, and the Schuylers in this blog. But it is easy to forget that these folks represented the very wealthiest families. Not everyone could gallivant about in their phaeton and spend three hours getting dressed for a fancy party!

How did the other half--or 99%--live?

I always keep an eye out for references to the other residents of Clermont while doing research. What was it like to live as a servant in the households of the very rich? What were the rules? What were the daily aggrevations? What were the smells, sites, and sounds?

While a complete compendium of their lives would require a good thick tome, I think I will take the next few entries of the blog to share my favorite glimpses of servant life with you:

"Off he tumbled": Nancy Shippen's servants and drinking--Drinking in the eighteenth century did not carry the social stygmas that it it earned in later centuries. In fact, many Westerners still avoided drinking water, favoring instead beers, wines, hard cider and some hot beverages like tea, coffee, and chocolate. In cities or along waterways polluted by animal and human waste water could carry disease. Even though this was not to be understood until the 1840s, it was often thought best to leave the water alone anyway.

So the Temperance Movement was a distant dream when on Thursday, March 10, 1785 Nancy recorded the following incident:

"When I came home about one oclock I was much alarmd with [news] ... of the coachmans falling off the box & nearly killing himself. After he put me down at the assembly he came home, took up the maids & carried them to a Tavern, treated them with wine & cakes & got so drunk himself that off he tumbled. There was every thing done for him that was necessary, but the poor creatures groans still vibrate in my ears."

The night ended poorly for the coachman, but it seemed to start out rather well. Once he'd gotten his mistress dropped off at her party, he had a few hours to kill before he was going to have to go back and pick her up again. In past entries, Nancy described staying out as late as 2am dancing so what was a man to do? He rounded up the maids of the house and went out for a good time.

This means that the anonymous coachman had enough spare money to treat at least a few ladies in addition to himself, and it means that by this time of night (probably around nine or ten o'clock, when he would have had time to return from the drop-off), the maids didn't have any chores they couldn't escape. It also seems to suggest that the maids got a ride in the plush carriage, yet another treat by their friend the coachman.

I can only imagine what life was like for the maids at that point in the Shippen household. Mrs. Shippen was almost certainly clinically depressed, which was also manifesting itself in phyisical ways. Their mistress's estranged husband Henry Beekman Livingston (who had a track record of physical violence towards servants) had been seen lurking around. Nancy was alternately depressed and keeping up an active social schedule to avoid her misery, and she was having ocassional battles with her father about this matter. Things were probably tense. The maids may have needed a drink--or at least some sort of release.

After a few hours of merrymaking, the company set off for home in the early spring night over rutted roads still melting and freezing with each day. They were probably flush with wine, the ladies possibly giggling until over went their drunk driver into the road. Nancy described this incident as "nearly killing himself." Was this hyperbole? Considering that he could easily have been sitting five or six feet in the air and would have had to contend with the danger of winding up under the wheels once he came down, I don't know. Either way, he faired poorly.

Which maid quit her giggling and ran for help? Who drove the carriage home? Were they on a lighted street or was the tavern in a less savory part of town?

Living and working in the household of one of Philadelphia's respected doctors, one can only hope that he received some good care once he did get home. "There was everything done for him that was necessary," says Nancy. Hopefully that didn't involve a little "hair of the dog!"

The coachman's story continues no further. Nancy doesn't see fit to comment on his recovery or return to work. She certainly doesn't mention him getting fired or reprimanded (in fact, she quite pitties him) for the incident so perhaps it was merely regarded as an unfortunate accident--not a deviant behavior. The excitement eventually blended into the background of Nancy's existence, though I imagine he was feeling the reprocussions for some time!