Saturday, February 1, 2014

Picturing Clermont in the Early Victorian Period

At almost 275 years old, Clermont has been a lot of things to a lot of people.  Here at the museum on on the blog, we talk a lot about the estate during the tumultuous years of the American Revolution or the last generation and the quiet family life of the early 20th century.

But what about the middle years?  What about the 19th century?  Who was here, and what were they doing?  The Victorian era is a favorite topic of discussion for a lot of people, conjuring up images of sweeping gowns and pretty white lace.  What was the reality like at Clermont?

Actually, the term "Victorian" covers a pretty broad spectrum of time.  Queen Victoria, for whom the epoch is named, ruled the English Empire from 1837 to 1901, during which time, Clermont went through four heads of household: Edward Philip, Clermont Livingston, Frederick DePeyster (son-in-law), Mary Livingston DePeyster (widowed daughter), and lastly John Henry Livingston.

Clermont Livingston took over the estate from his dad in 1844 and superintended the land and house with devotion until 1869, when he handed it over to his son-in-law Frederick dePeyster.   It is Clermont's experience of the Livingston family home that I'll try to paint today.

Clermont in the 1860s surrounded by large, grassy meadows and trees

With the stately old mansion as its centerpiece (soon to be adorned with fashionable little piazzas along the front), the estate sprawled across hundreds of acres of land, with it's most desirable being a strip right along the river itself.  To get to the house from the land , you would have had to pass through a broad expanse of orchards and gardens and barns, neatly separated by stone walls, and with a few little residences for tucked in between for the property's farm staff.  Sheep, cows, and a mixture of horses for different purposes grazed along open fields that lined the road on the way into the house.

Clermont (pronounced "Clement" by the family) was 27 years old in 1843 when his father passed away, leaving him a rich estate, complete with two well-stocked wine closets and a bevy of life-long tenants who would provide him with a reliable income (until the Anti-Rent Wars shattered that plan soon after).  The young man was still single and living at home with his step mother Mary Broome Livingston and younger brother Robert E, as shown by a description of "Articles not Assets" in the inventory of the property that was conducted just a few months later to facilitate division of the estate:

All necessary beds, viz: Bed & Bedding in Mrs. Livingston room
                                       Same in Clermont & Robert
All necessary bedstead, viz: 3

Curiously, this doesn't account for Clermont Livingston's little sister Mary Livingston.  At 21 years old, she was not yet married, but may not have been not staying at Clermont either.  Perhaps she had gone to stay with her older sister Elizabeth Livingston Ludlow.  Elizabeth was 31, married, and living in a lively social center that would have offered young Mary the opportunity to spend the winter social season scoping out eligible young men once she'd passed through the expected period of mourning.  Or conversely, perhaps it is for young Mary and not her step mother that a short list of bedroom furniture and tea wares were separated out for the "widow and child or children" in the inventory.

Indeed step mother Mary Broome took up a long list of furnishings and comforts of her own and left the house to its official heir.  The 1844 household inventory taken on Edward Philip's death shows her taking not only her clothing (worth a whopping $500), but also several pages worth of beds, desks, lamps, tables, curtains, carpets, and so much more "according to a compromise & With the consent" of the official heir.  It seems that Mary took what was most likely some of the better furniture, including a sofa worth $30, leaving the drawing room almost completely barren except for: 
1 Mirror                                                  80

Fender & fire irons                                 15

1 Glass Chandelier                                10
1 Centre table                                         5
In any case, she was certainly not being booted out to live in poverty, for she also was allowed to keep a carriage (still a major status symbol by this time), harnesses, and pair of coach horses totaling some $350.  She even filled out her larder, taking 50 jars of preserves, a "box of soda crackers," some cheese, and seven hogs. 

So there was young Clermont, a bit of a home-body by his own admission.  Just a few years earlier in December of 1841, he too had spent time with his sister and her husband in their New York City home, but even before the real onslaught of winter social season had gotten rolling, Clermont was already complaining about all of the parties he'd had to attend.  Now at last as master of the Hudson Valley estate he had the freedom to stay home in the country and tend him family's ancestral mansion and grounds.


Within a year he married his 3rd cousin Cornelia (above at right) from just upriver at Oak Hill, and their first daughter was born in 1845.  A son John Henry followed in 1848.  Still, that was no reason to kick out his younger brother and sister.  Mary and Robert E. staid on in the mansion until their own marriages a few years later--even then both both couples staid on for at least a year at their childhood home until their long-term living situations could be arranged. They most likely slept in the south wing beyond the study, whose two sunny bedrooms their father had added onto the house in 1831.

The rooms were nicely outfitted with grass "matting" on the floors, fine dressing dressing tables, wash stands for bathing, and some very good feather beds.  It may have looked a little like the image at right, a Brooklyn bedroom circa 1850-67 (from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston).  Note the little wash stand at left with a wash set for bathing neatly organized on top of it.  This pairing of furniture and china, essential for daily bathing, was listed in nearly every bedroom (including one of the servants' rooms) in the house.  The widowed Mrs. Edward Livingston also took two more with her when she left.  The wash stands were considered a  self-care station separate from dressing tables, which appear in alongside them in each of the family rooms.

Servants to care for the family slept in a pair of bedrooms in the basement--also sunny, but without fireplaces to keep them warm.  Two bedsteads, 3 chairs, a wash stand, and even an inexpensive carpet were in one room, while the other had only a pair of simple mattresses on the floor.  It seems possible that a third room in the attic housed an additional few servants, with its two poor straw mattresses tucked in amongst a bunch of stored furniture and andirons.  According to the 1840 census, there were 10 people living on the estate who could have been servants, though whether they all lived inside the house or some staid in other onsite buildings, I don't know.  By the  1850, 1855 and 1860 censuses, the household staff seems to have shrunk to more like five servants.

Entering the house's spacious center hall, you would have been given a sense of stately order.  A settee, 4 chairs, and two small tables made up the usual furniture for a hallways of the period, while a clock (possibly our tall case clock as pictured at left, which still stands there), hanging lantern, and the Chancellor's wooden "spy glass" peering out the front door.  The floor was fitted out with a large--and probably rather fine--oil cloth ($50), along with a smaller carpet ($6), stair carpet, and two door mats ($2).


The mansion's rooms overall were well furnished, including a bevvy of fine pieces from the respected maker Duncan Phyfe as well as that very fancy mirror listed in the drawing room inventory above.  At $80 it was by far the most expensive piece of furniture in the house, and more than three times as expensive as any other mirror.  If only I could figure out which one it was!

Above, at right is an 1845 image from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston showing a room that with many of the same elements that would have appeared in Clermont's drawing room, including a large center table, glistening lamp, footstools, mirror over the mantle, and even a piano fuerte not unlike the one still in our collections  (if you zoom in on the image, don't miss the decorative cover that's been inserted into the fireplace to pretty it it up for the warm summer months).


Curiously, the dining room had a full array of seating furniture in 1844 when Edward Philip died.  In addition to 8 dining chairs (the dining table appears to have gone with the step mother), there is also a nice sofa ($25), easy chair ($20), and small table ($5) which could have been some sort of side table for the seating furniture.  This situation seems to have suited Clermont well, for they were never moved out.  According to his son's recollections, Clermont always "sat for preference in our dining room, where his easy chair & sofa were installed."


The family enjoyed a large compliment of inherited silver and silver plate, glass, and china for their dinners (like the tiny silver and cobalt glass salt cellar at right).  Much of this was specialized to serve specific foods, such as the swanky "celery bowl" and the fine silver castor stands and silver punch bowls  The ceramics alone included:

1 dinner set white and gilt 200 pieces               125 
                blue India 120                            50 
Desert         black and gilt  80                      50
1 Lot cups and saucers        34                       15 
19 cups and saucers  (French)                          15 
3                 “ white pieces do.                      3

I get the sense that after Cornelia's untimely death in 1851 however, that family meals became relatively staid.  When Robert E. got married in 1854, his 6-year-old nephew John Henry stood, gazing up at the "wonder pyramid of glace fruits...I had probably never seen such a thing before & it made a most profound impression!"  At least the meals were well-furnished with fine fruits and vegetables from the mansion's gardens. 

It seems that the patriarch of the estate preferred to be in the shady north-facing rooms (as our dining room is); he even selected the little north office wing pictured at right for his son's and wife's bedrooms.  In fact with the large trees you can see growing almost right up against the house, it's a wonder that much light penetrated the interior at all!  

Stepping outside of the mansion you would have found the patriarch's true love: the farm.  More than any other head of household, Clermont doted on his orchards, his gardens, and the land.  According to John Henry, "He was devoted to his country place, a good shot & a good horseman & particularly fond of flowers, working for hours himself in his greenhouse..." Perhaps from time to time he joined his cousin Montgomery, next door at New Clermont, where there was a race track installed. 

A sizable acreage was still associated with the property, though some lands were split off along the river where his younger brother and sister built their own mansions Northwood and Southwood under his supervision.  Chiddingstone (at left in the late 19th century), owned by his older sister Margaretand her husband David Clarkson sat just south of these so a whole row Livingston brothers and sisters could easily go up and down visiting each other, connected by the old locust-lined Avenue that ran along the river (the origin of our current dirt access road).

To the east, about a mile away, stood an orchard (approximate location marked with a red circle at right) with nearly a dozen different varieties of apples and pears that were both used at home and sold to the city.  Somewhere around there was also a vineyard whose grapes were sold.  Just up the hill from the mansion was the greenhouse mentioned above, where he grew assorted plants and even fruit trees like nectarine.  And a large garden still elsewhere featured extensive hotbeds and rows of fruits and vegetables. 

Outbuildings dotted the landscape around the mansion, including an ice house--which Clermont at first used tenant labor to fill in the winters--root cellar, wood house, and the first part of the carriage barn or "coach house" that now serves as our Visitors Center.  The inventory lists "barns and farm house," which likely included multiple barns for the 200 sheep, 22 cows, cattle and calves, 6 horses, and 2 oxen listed in the inventory.  Additional barns would also have been kept to house grain and farm equipment.  The farm house is most likely what is now known as Clermont Cottage and housed a farm manager and his family (Clermont and Sylvan cottages marked with red circles at left).

Sylvan Cottage (pictured at right after the addition of a deep porch) was originally built some decades earlier for farm managers or other agents, but in 1856 the house held a Danish immigrant named Wolf to teach both the Livingston children and the neighboring DePeyster.  Mr. and Mrs. Wolf kept the north room as a school room and raised their own family in the four or five-room cottage as well.  The building was heated with coal, like the mansion, and it would have always had that smell about it in the winters.

As an estate, Clermont was pretty representative of its fellows in the Hudson River Valley at the time.  The stately mansion, peering over the bluffs at the Hudson River was merely the centerpiece of a sprawling acreage and large assortment of outbuildings.  As the patriarch of this little empire Clermont, the man, spent years perfecting the farm portion, making no real notable changes to the house as he had inherited it from his father.  Indeed, it seems he never even rearranged the dining room--living throughout his life with the odd addition of a sofa and easy easy chair to the usual dining table and chairs. 

The house was well-appointed with full compliments of silver, glass, and china--everything needed to support a high status lifestyle in the mid-nineteenth century.  But even so, it remained a relatively staid place.  John Henry's childhood unfamiliarity with fancy party food as a child suggests that Clermont felt little need to do much entertaining, at least as a widower (he did eventually remarry), and a strict daily routine for the children focused on lessons and good behavior with consistent fatherly supervision.

It is a far cry from the household that John Henry created when he took over in the 1870s.  He undertook major remodeling to the house that included adding on our fanciful chateauesque roof, putting a second story on the south wing, and completely renovating several rooms.  His wives (he too was widowed and remarried twice) held parties, and his youngest daughters Honoria and Janet cavorted with a large assortment of dogs and cats in the gardens.


Although it is John Henry's household that we interpret today, his father's and grandfather's Clermont is not completely lost to us.  The inventory I've been quoting is an invaluable source for recreating this earlier picture, along with a small selection of letters and Clermont Livingston's scantily-worded weather journal.  For anyone who'd rather picture Clermont in the days of Dickens and Queen Victoria than "Downton Abbey," these are the keys to that vision.

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