Wednesday, December 23, 2009


This is the sixth and final post in a series on Nicholas van Rensselaer...

It's been six long and winding posts since Nicholas Van Rensselaer told Charles II that he'd be restored to the throne. Let's recap, shall we? (The following section sounds a lot better if you imagine it being read by James Burke. But then, doesn't everything?)

"So Nicholas' prophecy gets him in good with the king, which also gets him in the good graces of his family - for once. So his family gets him a good position and a good marriage in the New World, in the hopes that this will get them control over Albany. But Nicholas gets sick and dies, and then his family gets the shaft. Alida gets Robert, Robert gets a day in court, and maybe New York gets to keep Albany. Get it? It's all connected."
Thank you, James.

The year 1683 was a tense one for the British colony of New York and the Van Rensselaer family. The Rensselaers had been poised to wrest control over the city of Albany away from the British crown. But when young Robert Livingston married Alida Van Rensselaer, the family was placed on the defensive. Robert's claim to inheritance of some of the Rensselaer land gave the British Governor Thomas Dongan the additional leverage he needed.

Robert was also making common cause with several other people who were claiming debts owed by the Van Rensselaer family. Some factions even wanted Rensselaerwyck dissolved and the land sold off. The Rensselaer family might not only lose their claim to Albany, but to their vast holdings of land in the new world. It all depended on what deal they could work out with the Governor.

Enter the distinctly uncomfortable Stephanus Van Cortland, former Mayor of New York City and related to all sides by business, blood and marriage. He was married to Alida's sister, but was himself the brother of the primary representative of the Rensselaer family in America, Maria Van Rensselaer. Loyalties well and truly divided, Van Cortland began negotiations between Robert, the Rensselaers and the Governor.

The smoke finally cleared in 1685, and the three sides seem to have each gotten some of what they wanted. The Rensselaers finally got manorial control over Rensselaerwyck, and the manor was actually expanded. In addition to the 850,000 acres usually pictured, they were granted another large plot of land down the river which was titled Claverack. All told, they now controlled over 1 million acres. For this, however, they had to give up any claim to the city of Albany and a large area of land around it.

This set the stage for Governor to write the Dongan Charter the next year. At long last, the city of Albany was free and clear, independent of the Rensselaer manorial control. The family would test their authority from time to time, but Albany remained legally independent.

Robert Livingston came out of this without much - on paper, at least. Though he managed to avoid getting stuck with Nicholas' debt, a little money and a fair amount of wheat was the only payment he received for giving up his claim to the Rensselaer lands. It might seem odd that the man who instigated this whole affair should wind up with so little, but shortly thereafter he received the famous grant of around 600 acres, which he promptly turned into around 160,000 acres. From this angle, it's hard not to see that as a payoff.

In one swoop, the future of Albany was secured, Rensselaer control over their lands was solidified and Robert Livingston had become one of the greatest landowners in the region. And it can all be traced back to a simple prophecy spoken by the black sheep of the Rensselaer family to an exiled monarch. Nicholas Van Rensselaer lived, prophesied and died, leaving New York changed in his passing.

Friday, December 18, 2009

A Greyhound Named Wagon

Here is another dog story to add to the series on pets that I've been building up. Since I will be absent next week for the holidays, I thought I would double up and post an extra blog this week. I will be back to blogging again before the New Year.

I was prodded to dig through some of Alice's photo albums this week by an inquiry on Facebook about Punchy the Boston terrier. During my digging I came across this picture of the Livingston's Greyhound Wagon (pronounced Va-goan) pulling Janet in a dog cart in 1917. Wasn't I surprised!

It's not that I had never seen a dog pulling a cart before. Dogs have been harnessed for centuries as draft animals (at left is an image from the 1890s of a Belgian post card featuring a dog pulling a dairy cart). The tradition was carried on in many parts of the world late into the 19th century, and was made particularly famous in Belgium by an 1872 story entitled "A Dog of Flanders"--a heart-rending story that was read to me as a child.

In the past few decades, dog carting has even made a resurgence as healthy sport for dogs and their people (at right you can see a dog carting demonstration at Clermont in 2006).

It's just that seeing Janet seated there behind Wagon just caught me off guard. But driving--horses, cars, you name it--was a leisure activity popular among the wealthy. Janet and Honoria road around in a wicker pony cart when they were little. Honoria preferred the pony cart to the new car because she could get in and out at will to pick flowers, according to her mother. Clermont still has five miles of carriage paths and riding trails on its grounds that were originally used by the Livingstons for pleasure in the warm weather, and their neighbors the Churches at Olana enjoyed their own trails that wended around the hills, affording fine views of the Catskills and Hudson River.
rom its configuration, this little cart appears to be made specifically for dogs, and with the reins in her hands, Janet looks quite adept at driving her dog. Since they owned a special cart for the purpose and appear to have put some time into training Wagon to pull it, it seems that this was also a common afternoon passtime for the Livingston girls.

Wagon joined the Livingston family in 1916, a leggy brindle puppy who must have found particular pleasure in Clermont's wide-open landscape. His doggy companions at that time were Rufus the bloodhound and an aging Boston terrier named Punchy, and the three of them appear to have been the children's constant companions. A Pekingnese named Gobi joined them in 1917, bringing the Livingstons up to a four-dog household.
He appears in photographs with the Livingstons only through the winter of 1917, and it seems that he is the infamous "train chaser," that Alice later wrote about losing. By 1918, the only picutes of the dog cart show it being used by the children to pull Gobi around.
Finding Wagon and his dog cart is one more clue to understanding the Livingston's relationships with their pets. Pet ownership has the been subject of increasing study over the past few years because of the ways it helps us to understand ourselves. I was thrilled to find this curious piece of the puzzle in Alice's photo albums.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Nicholas' Legacy

This is the fifth post in a series on Nicholas van Rensselaer
The death of Nicholas was like the breaking of a mirror: it brought the Rensselaer family seven years of misfortune. Not only had they lost their access to the King's ear, but they lost control over some of their property as Nicholas' widow now stood to inherit some of her late husband's property. The situation got worse when Alida married Robert Livingston, a man who's ambitions were as boundless as the lands of the New World.

What made this particularly bitter was that very recently it had looked like they would get everything they wanted. Nicholas' influence had paid off, and in the summer of 1678 Governor Edmund Andros received instructions from the Duke of York that the Rensselaers were to be given control of Albany and full rights and privileges over the domain of Rensselaerwyck, Ordered by his sovereign to give up the hub of the Indian trade and hand enormous influence to an already powerful family, Governor Andros did something very courageous - he did nothing. Andros bravely dragged his feet and issued soothing words until the end of his tenure five years later.

That sounds flip, but it's quite serious. It's hard to know what the loss of one of its two principle cities in New York would have done to British control over the area. The Rensselaers were businessmen first and colonists second, and it's quite possible that they would have run the city as a trading post with an eye towards profit alone. But Andros delayed, then Nicholas died in the winter of that year and the family lost some of its clout. Then Robert Livingston married Nicholas' widow, and things suddenly got complicated.

Historians differ on exactly what Livingston tried to wrangle out of the Rensselaer family. Some report that Robert tried for it all: Patroonship over all of Rensselaerwyck. Working is his favor was the confusion resulting from the gradual shift from Dutch law to British law. The Dutch would allow women to inherit business and property, and so the Rensselaer family insisted that the lands all go to Nicholas' sister, Maria Van Rensselaer. However, British law was more restrictive in what women could inherit, and so Robert could claim to be the direct male heir as Alida's new husband.

But laying claim to any of Nicholas' property came with risks. Nicholas was the wastrel son with no head for business, and he'd racked up significant debts before he died. Robert needed to carefully thread the needle, laying claim to the property through Alida's inheritance, while not becoming responsible for the crushing debts. That might have tempered his ambition, and some sources record that he only lay claim to 10% of the estate - essentially the portion that Nicholas could have claimed to own outright rather than just oversee as director. Still, 10% was over 80,000 acres, and the Rensselaer's were loath to give it up.

This argument was waiting on the Governor's desk in 1682 when Andros left and Thomas Dongan took over. The order to hand over control to the Rensselaer family was still in force, but Andros' delays meant that the family had never been able to collect. The conflict meant that a good chunk of the developed land in the state was under uncertain control, and the Albany itself could not know if it was a British city or a trading post for the Rensselaer family. Backed by the Duke of York's authority, the family had every right to full control over the their lands and the city.

Dongan wanted British ncontrol of Albany, but one way or another he needed the conflict to be ended. When Robert Livingston renew his claim for some of the Rensselaer property in 1863, it touched off a long series of negotiations that would determine the way that the state of New York would develop.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Dog Blog: "Aha moment!"

Last August, I posted the Dog Blog, which has subsequently received more hits than any other of Clermont's blog entries. Apparently I need to write a little more about Clermont's ample pet population!

In my earlier Dog Blog mentioned that I could not for the life of me read this particular headstone in our little Pet Cemetary. For a four years now I have not been able to make out anything but the date. My best guess on the word above was "died," although even I have to admit, it wasn't a very good guess.

Thank goodness for Joe, our maintenance supervisor! While pouring over some old maps, he found that someone had labeled each grave in easy-read-handwriting. The mystery dog's name is Odin!

What made Odin so special? This is an attractively ornate stone in comparison with the others, and Odin was the first dog at Clermont we can find who merrited such a permanent grave marker.

Named after a Norse god (pictured above), Odin died on August 5, 1893 in the midst of John Henry's elaborate renovations and additions to the mansion at Clermont. In 1893 John Henry had only recently been married to his new wife Emily so it is a reasonable guess that Odin was a companion to John Henry through his years as a widower (from his first wife Catherine) or possibly the pet of his daughter Katharine through her teen years (Katharine was 20 in 1893, two years from her own marriage to an Englishman).
What kind of dog was Odin? Soda, the next dog we see with a stone marker in the pet cemetary (1902), was Jack Russel Terrier, and Boston Terriers were the first dogs John Henry later shared with his third wife Alice in 1906. Did John Henry have a preference for small, tenacious dogs? Or was Odin a larger, rangier creature like those sometimes pictured with his namesake? If I find out, I will be sure to let you know.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Mythical Mirrors

It made me laugh that a week after I posted the blog "Mythical Beasts" about common historic house myths, I had a personal run-in with disproving one: The myth of the petticoat mirror.

This one is a costume myth so I am always tickled by it. The myth begins with pier tables, like ours pictured on the right or the one from the Brooklyn Museum pictured at left. These decorative tables often have mirrored glass beneath the table top. According the story, these mirrors were called "petticoat mirrors" and were installed to allow ladies to check to make sure that their petticoats were not showing beneath their skirts. Often located in hallways, where a woman would be entering or leaving a house, it seems sensible.

It's not the purpose of the mirrors. Any woman well-to-do enough to own a piece of furniture as expensive pier table or visit a home with a pier table knew enough to check to make sure her underwear wasn't hanging out before she left the bedroom. It's a little "low" for a genteel woman to be checking her underwear in the mirror, not unlike a modern woman stopping to check her underwear lines in a public mirror--a little too personal to share.

Not only that, but an historic petticoat is not like a modern slip, whose thin elastic waistband can allow it to slip down your hips and peek beneath your skirt. Before the days of elastic, petticoats were sewn onto a secure waistband that wasn't going anywhere.

The purpose of the mirrors was decorative. Reflecting light around a room on highly-polished surfaces, including mirrors, glass, crystal pendants on chandeliers, or fine wood surfaces, was a way of demonstrating wealth. It dazzled the eye and demonstrated a great deal of labor (performed by servants or slaves) that was needed to maintain that level of clean.

I always assumed that this myth came from someone's great-aunt Bessy, a rare woman who put aside decorum and periodically checked her petticoat in the mirror when no one was looking. But the other day I had to dress up as 1910s Ollie, and since my petticoat is on an elastic waistband, I was worried that it had slipped down and was hanging out my back. How indecent!

Off I went in search of a "petticoat mirror," of which we have aplenty. But shoot! It was impossible to see the hem of my skirt! That big old table sticking out of the wall made it so I could see nothing but the floor--not even my toes. Even in our wide hallyway, I could not back far enough away to get a glimpse of my own petticoat. I had to go chasing upstairs to Alice's full-length mirror in order to find out that several inches of white petticoat were indeed hanging out of my backside.

So there it is, the myth of the petticoat mirror put to bed--not only would the practice of checking your underwear in public be a little taboo, but it doesn't even work (much to my disappointment that day)!

**Want to see more petticoats from Clermont's collections?  See here for images of children's petticoats from the late 19th century!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Hardenbergh 2: Even Harder

The second post in a series on the Hardenbergh Patent...

Robert of Clermont could look out from his front door, cast his gaze upon the Catskill Mountains, and declare that he owned all he could see. But could he do that honestly? Yes and no. He owned perhaps a third of the Great Hardenbergh Patent, which encompassed the Catskill Mountains. But which third? And how many acres did that actually amount to?

Since the Patent spent almost half a century without being properly surveyed, its boundaries remained loosely defined. Eventually, as the land around it was claimed, it began to be roughly defined by its shared borders with other patents. Of course, in land disputes, roughly defined borders wind up in court. It seems that a number of lawyers made quite a bit of money off the Patent, as owners of the surrounding land did battle over who owned what.

But one of the largest problems came from the original owners of the land. Or rather, the problem was over who really were the original owners. All the land technically belong to the British Monarchy, but through treaties the land not claimed by European settlers was owned by the Indians. So all acquisitions of new land had to begin by dealing with the Indians.

But the Indians themselves didn't practice land ownership, and control over a given piece of land could be very fluid. The question arose of which group of natives one needed to approach. Of course, unscrupulous colonists could take advantage of this confusion. It seems that there were certain Indians who were willing to say with a straight face that they controlled any given piece of land, and were willing to sign it over for a very reasonable price.

It's not immediately clear who Johannes Hardenbergh approached. Most likely it was some portion of the River Indians – a loose category that included the Esopus and Mahican Indians. But whatever claim this group might have had was disputed by the Mohawk, at least over the western portion of the Catskills. The Mohawk went so far as to threaten war on the various members of the River Tribes if the Hardenbergh Patent included the northwest Catskills and the lands around the Delaware river.

Those were just the official problems, and there were innumerable smaller problems. Many of the early New Yorkers had a practical approach to land ownership: if it wasn't currently occupied, then it was free for the taking. The responsibility for dealing with such attitudes fell to Johannes Hardenbergh himself. From the time the Patent was granted until shortly before he died, Johannes rode the trails of the Catskills, forcing out squatters, fending off lumber thefts and correcting the occasional straying fenceline.

Between policing his land, bargaining with the Indians and making the occasional court appearance, Johannes was never able to get the land surveyed, which just extended the problem. Not only was the lack of external boundaries a problem, but the lack of internal partitions meant that the owners could never divide up the land and lay claim to their share. Johannes died in 1745, while the Patent bearing his name was still six years from being properly surveyed. In his will, he directed that his sons should sell off his shares and give up on the Patent.

The lack of internal partitions meant that Robert of Clermont could not be absolutely sure which third of the Patent was his. The lack of external boundaries meant that he could never be sure how many acres his third share made up. Estimates of the total acreage for the Patent range from 1 million acres to two million acres, which is quite a range. The 1.5 million acres is a guess in hindsight, based on modern maps and boundaries set by decades of legal wrangling.

With the death of Johannes Hardenbergh, de facto control over the fate of his Patent passed on to the largest single landowner, which happened to be Robert. Under Robert, lagging surveys that were set into motion under Johannes were finally completed and the Patent was finally defined, divided and distributed. At some point in the 1750s, Livingston was able to claim some of the northeastern portion of the Catskills and lands south to what is now Woodstock. More than a decade after buying in, he was able to truly say that he owned all he could see, without squinting.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Faux Ho Ho

This Christmas 2009 will see the close of Clermont's first all-faux year. For the first year ever, we have moved away from the use of not only flame candles, but organic plant materials. While this might not sound like very exciting news, to those of us who love Clermont's rich collection of material culture, it really is.

Museums across the country are working to get flame candles and lamps out of their historic buildings. For obvious reasons! Near-miss stories abound--"Do you remember the year Sandy almost bumped over a candle and lit the garland on fire? Whew! We really dodged a bullet on that one!" In 2005, this nightmare came true for the Lewis and Clark National Park when a reproduction building was burned down, possibly by a hearth fire that got out of control. Thankfully, no historic structures were damaged, but the loss of resources was still painful.

Even when candles or hearth fires do not light anything aflame, the risk of damage from wax drips or smoke (think of the cumulative damage to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel) or even scorch marks from a flame placed too close to an artifact is very real.

Candles and all flame have been banned in New York historic buildings since 2005. The dangers were simply too severe. Back then, our friends at the Saratoga Battlefield Historical Park had already pre-tested a wide variety of "flameless" candles, and they were more than willing to help us find "the good stuff." We purchased bees-wax covered electric candles as a result of their research, and we have been adding to this collection of candles annually now since then.

The benefits range beyond peace of mind and safety of the artifacts; without the need for supervision (someone always had to stand beside a lit candle in New York historic sites to ensure that it was safe), we can plug them in for other holidays or even just cloudy ones. The candles are so convincing that once when I turned on the dining room table lights (the best of the bunch), a coworker came to find me in a hurry to see why we had candles burning in the house.

Live flowers or greens (especially noticable around Christmas) pose their own risks too. Both can bring in potentially damaging insects. For instance, who hasn't cut peonies for their house and suddenly found ants crawling out of them? Flower pots can also overflow and leave rings on historic furniture, and greens crusted with bits of snow can melt and leave water droplets that damage wood and sully unwashable textiles.

Not to mention the possibility of attracting mice! Clermont had already been avoiding the use of nuts, which, even when shellacked and hot glued to decorative items, proved too inviting for the resident rodents. The little vandals attacked anything edible that was not stored in our refridgerator in the basement.

The most common damage from plants came from live spruce, boxwood, and other evergreens that shed bits of organic matter everywhere as they died slowly inside the building. These acidic bits get into the cracks between the floorboards or the joints in furniture and, over time, do cumulative damage to once-glossy finishes. It was more than just enough to break a curator's heart; it was enough to put us into action.

After the hazardous mess left by greens in 2008 (shown above), Clermont took steps to ensure that it could never happen again. Live plants, and all organic plant materials not already in the museum by the end of 2008, were banned.
What does that mean for our dedicated decorators? It was hard to give up the romance of live greens. A sizeable portion of the decorating budget this year went to an investment in high-quality faux greenery. Pine and spruce garland, boxwood, and ivy, along with a good dose of new faux fruit while we were at it, have "spruced" the place up for Christmas. We even found good quality faux poinsettias (a major fabric store chain carries them).

The most important purchase was a nine-foot Christmas tree, which will grace the library all month.

But the "fringe" benefits of the faux greens soon made themselves aparent. First, our pine-allergic administrative assitant (who is a major decorator every year) thanked us for rescueing her. But most importantly, the greens are not in danger of dying off. In the past, the end of the season was punctuated by a sound like rain whenever anyone brushed against the greens as cascades of acidic pine needs rattled to the floor. Green garland was soon replaced by bare twigs, and woe to he who hung up the greens too early! Christmas weekend could be brown and twiggy if we miscalculated.

Not so with faux. This year, some decorating could begin early to save stress on staff, and we can rest assured that our visitors who come closer to Christmas will see the greens looking as beautiful as the day they were put up.

Real greens are not completely gone from our decor. This year, the back porch (which is the main visitor entrance) is sporting live garland and kissing balls, with greens cut from Clermont's own grounds--although some was shared from our generous nextdoor neighbors, who allowed us to trim some bits off their evergreens.

The truth is that we love the flicker of a real candle flame and the smell of pine and spruce as much as anybody, but as a museum, our concerns always have to be ballanced with protection of the artifacts. Treating potentially-fragile 18th century artifacts with kid gloves may seem obvious, but it is equally important for us to be gentle with our twentieth century artifacts. We are charged with maintaining them for the public in perpetuity, and even the smallest damage can add up over that length of time. In the interest of the artifacts, we have to accept a little faux in our "Ho ho ho."

Friday, November 27, 2009

Mythical Beasts

I have never forgotten the tour of an historic presidential mansion that I took as a college student (I won't divulge which, but it was not in New York). Awash in colorful Zuber wallpaper, historic furnishings, and curious family annecdotes, I had a lovely time. But it was the first time I was ever heard the infamously-false "Tale of the Fire Screen."

I had only just declared my history major, and so it seemed like such a fun little tidbit. You may know the one:

"Beside the fireplace, you can see an embroidered fire screen. There are many of these funny little pieces of furniture in fine houses of the period, as they were commonly used by ladies. Many people suffered small pox in their youth, leaving them terribly scarred. They filled in these scars with wax make-up, and the screens would keep that wax from melting off their faces when a fire was lit."

It seemed so juicy, so delectable--a lady's intimate secrets! It was like "Ripley's Believe it or Not" for history. Wasn't I dissapointed several years later to learn that this is a common Historic House Myth!

Historic House Myths happen at museums everywhere. They seem so believable and so amusing that they get retold and retold until they seem like they must be fact. Curators and interpreters do their best to stay ahead of these myths, but sometimes they slip by us and find their way out to the public's ear. They may even be born of a kernel of truth, simplified or elaborated upon to make a beter story. Sometimes they are left in the wake of changing research or improved scholarship.

When we find out that we've been telling a historic house myth, it can be hard to give it up; some of them are our best-loved stories and jokes! For instance, I was guilty of telling one at Clermont for a few years:

"Here is our historic telephone--first private telephone in this area. It was installed in 1906, and the telephone number was 3."

This story always got a laugh, but when I was paging through the New York Historical Register one day, I found that Clermont's telephone number was actually 102. It seems the number "3" was born of the fact that we were the third telephone (though still the first in a private home) put in by Germantown Phone Company. As it turns out, for some reason 102 is a much less funny number than 3. It never gets a laugh.

Clermont's interpreters have also been gently putting to rest the "Cannon Ball Tree" story for quite some time. According to this tale, which came from time immemorial, when Clermont was burned by the British General Vaughn in 1777, he fired cannon at the house first. During the cannonade, one ball was lodged in a tree on the southwest terrace and remains their still today, enveloped by the growth of the tree itself.

Sadly, although the English army kept diligent records of their oridinence usage, no record has yet been found of cannon balls being wasted on the empty mansion of Clermont.

Similarly, the painting "Heavenly Lovers," which hangs in the library at Clermont is the victim of its own myth. The painting's plain, unadorned frame is often commented on by curious visitors, and the story used to be that the painting was never given a fancier frame because Alice's mother disliked it, and Alice would take it down and hide it when she came to visit. The simplier frame was supposedly easier to move.

This story was elaborated out from one that Honoria Livingston gave in a 1984 interview. According to her, since her grandmother did not like the painting very much, it was given to Alice to hang at Clermont. As far as we know now, there was no need to hide it.

Still other myths are simply a confusing jumble of stories passed down through various sources. The Thomas Sully portrait of Andrew Jackson that hangs in the dining room is certainly a treasure, but we do not know for sure how it became part of the Livingston household. Jackson was not a Livingston descendant, did not marry a Livingston, and did not pass it down through any hereditary means to Alice Livingston. There are stories that it came from one of the residents of Arryl House next door, or was purchased at hasty auction when its owner liquidated his property and left the country in a hurry. So what is there to say about him? We simply don't know how such a well-known portrait of Jackson got into our dining room.

So what is museum to do when it is faced with these stories, and how can the visiting public trust a thing we say? As with most museums, Clermont's curators and interpreters are constantly researching new information from the best available sources and checking it against what they tell the public. All we can do is be constantly in search of the right answers and sometimes be willing to say "I don't know" when the right answers haven'tbeen brought to light yet.

Museum visitors can trust that we are avidly pursuing this goal, or they can challenge us by doing a little research of their own. Think something sounds too good to be true? Check it out! Many museums have selected history books that pertain to their subjects in their museum stores. These can be a good source for a little investigation. Somes guides may have suggestions about their favorite history books too. Or you can strike out on your own for a trip to the library--you may even have something to share with us!

Want to find out more about Historic House Myths? Colonial Williamsburg's article "Stuff and Nonsense" might be right up your alley. Many museums and historic houses are also holding talks and lectures about historic house myths. Keep an eye out for one near you!

Monday, November 23, 2009

Robert and Alida, Alida and Robert

The third post in a series on Nicholas van Rensselaer...

Van Rensselaer's odd career ended in 1678, with his death from an unrecorded illness. To his family, it must have seems like their hopes of attaining full control over their land died with him. But things were about to get more complicated, because his widow, Alida, now carried his family connections and a legal claim to his property. And within a year, she had married a up-and-coming young man named Robert Livingston.

Let's slow down a bit. The problem with the standard narrative is that it makes the marriage seem like a foregone conclusion. Read it too quickly and you're left with the impression that Nicholas simply willed his wife to Robert Livingston like a piece of furniture.

Part of the problem is the eternal impediment to understanding figures in history: their future is our past. Of course Alida and Robert would marry, because we know they did. But another part of the problem is that women of important men are often treated like an adornment, and little thought is given to what their relationship must have been like.

It's a mistake to treat Alida Livingston as a piece of furniture. Unlike the English, the Dutch had few reservations about leaving their lands and businesses in the control of wives and daughters. Further, women could own property, engage in business and trade, sue or be sued, all without male sponsorship.

It's worth noting that after the death of Nicholas, de facto control over the vast estates of Rensselaerwyck passed to his sister-in-law, Maria. In fact, had Nicholas not ingratiated himself to the British monarchy it's likely that Maria would have inherited control after the death of her husband Jeremias, the third Patroon.

Granted, Maria was not exactly typical of the women of her day, but neither was Alida. Alida was the daughter of Philip Schuyler, a prosperous merchant and founder of the prominent family. Her mother was Margaretta van Schlechtenhorst, whose father Brandt had served as the second director of Rensselaerwyck. Her sister Gertrude had married Stephanus Van Cortland, still another prominent family in the region. Her marriage to a Rensselaer completed the circle. To tie things together even tighter, Stephanus Van Cortland was the brother of Maria Van Rensselaer.

The purpose behind this blizzard of names is not to confuse, but just to show that Alida was an extremely well connected young lady. As part of the nexus of several great merchant families, it's not surprising that Alida would be well versed in matters of trade and business. When her father Philip died, she inherited and ran his estates for almost three decades.

Her skill as a businesswoman come through in her letters to Robert. Robert spent a good portion of his time away from their home in Albany. He traveled down to New York City to purchase supplies, and abroad to London or Amsterdam to negotiate business deals. All the while, Alida ran the household, the manor, and a general store in Albany.

The letters that Alida wrote are studded with business advice, political thoughts, inventories from the store, updates on construction and the occasional strong opinion, (“That is what you get from New England, you get cheated.”) What quickly becomes clear is that Alida and Robert were partners in a variety of ventures, and only one of them was romantic.

And so when you read in a historical work that “Robert Livingston provided supplies to the British Army,” you should mentally add Alida's name to the sentence. Perhaps Robert negotiated the contract and purchased some of the bulk supplies, but it was Alida who oversaw the processing and distribution. And so it was the partnership between the two, formed in the year after Nicholas Van Rensselaer's untimely death, that began the Livingston family's great fortune.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Cecily Parsley and Apple Dapply

With Christmas decorating already getting started at Clermont, it is the time of year when my work becomes increaingly focused on children. This is alright with me, since it gives me time to indulge in nostaglia, games, and all things "fun." In this mindset, I thought it might be a good time to revisit three little books from the archives.

It only makes sense to find Beatrix Potter books amongst Janet and Honoria's little library of children's books. Published in 1917 (Apple Dapply's Nursery Rhymes), 1918 (the Tale of Johnny Town Mouse), and 1922 (Cecily Parsley's Nursery Rhymes), the three books would have been the latest works from an already wildly-popular author.

In 1917 and '18, the girls would have been 8 or 9, just about the right age for the fanciful tales. That they also had a 1922 copy of Cecily Parsley leads me to believe the earlier two books must have been much-loved, as the last book may be considered a bit young for girls who were now 12 and 13 year olds. That these books were part of Janet and Honoria's childhood is expressive of the lives that they lead--full animal friends.

What struck me about this was that there could not have been a more appropriate set of books for these two girls to have. Much like Potter herself as a child, Janet and Honoria were already demonstrating a love for small companion animals: the dogs that their parents purchased as pets were constant playmates. Topaz the cat, Solomon the peacock, several goldfish, a pair of wiggly white mice, and Dickie Bird the canary (pictured at right sharing breakfast with the children) were also well-loved pets who shared in the children's daily lives.

Janet and Honoria also cared for the wild animals around them. In particular, they took pleasure in feeding the birds outside their window.

"The storm has made the birds even friendlier than ever and they come in flocks to our feeding places... Four blue-jays are so tame they will sit fearlessly in a row on the ledge of the day-nursery window where food is spread, even while the children play about the room."

wrote Alice in 1916. The wild squirrels, geese, and mice which roamed the farmland at Clermont, could not have escaped their attention either, bringing the charactors of Potter's stories right to Janet and Honoria's doorstep.
Janet in particular loved animals. Honoria later remembered that her sister kept albino rabbits in a cage near the playhouse. Honoria's description of "anything you could keep in a cage, we kept up there," also leads me to wonder if other kinds of small animals ever found themselves in the Livingstons care.

Much like her children, Alice (pictured on the left at 15) formed many close relationships with her pets, which were discussed in an earlier "Dog Blog." Beatrix Potter too shared similar relationships with animals. I was touched by the similarity between of the many photographs of Alice with her dogs and the ones of Beatrix Potter with her spaniel Spot (shown at right). In the absense of public school educations or a life in town, to provide many friends their own age, both young women found friendships in the form of pets. This would have been considered appropriate and healthy in nineteenth century America, as dogs in particular became linked with the guardianship of childhood.

For Janet and Honoria, already encouraged to share their lives with animals, the tales of Beatrix Potter must have been a delight. One can imagine that, like many children, the two girls may have anthropomorphized their pets with the names and familial roles that helped them to role play adult life. While "Old Mrs. Rabbit" was instructing her children Flopsy, Mopsy, Cottontail, and Peter, Janet and Honoria may have been creating stories of their own. For instance, Janet's grip on Topaz at right even mimics that of child holding a doll or a mother holding an infant. (For a similar history of an Albany family's adventures with their own animal nation-- "The Bunny States of America"-- try reading Katherine Grier's book "Pets in America: A History")
Pets continued to be part of Janet and Honoria's lives well into adulthood. As a young adult Janet had a horse at Clermont that she would ride and, as was mentioned in the Dog Blog entry, she later went onto support the Humane Society and Seeing Eye dogs. Though Honoria apparently did not engage in animal organizations like Janet, she continued to keep cats and dogs with her, even when flying back and forth to Florida in the winters.

Beatrix Potter's books, which call to our imagination the nostalgia of a simple, country life, have struck a chord with English and American readers for over a century now. The safety and familiarity of Old Mrs. Rabbit's burrow was always there for comfort, while the tiny lives of talking rodents created a magical and exotic world. Some of these ideas have persisted in literature ever since (think of the Winnie the Pooh stories, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, and to some extent Watership Down).

The empathy for animals required to build personal relationships with them is something that has become common only in the past two centuries or so. By extending this emotional connection to children's stories, Beatrix Potter helped to prepare the Livingston children, and many others, to love and care for animals for the rest of their lives.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Lighting at Clermont

With the fall equinox behind us and the winter solstice looming in the near future, it is starting to get dark around here. Around 3:00 on a cloudy day, it can get very dim on the tour floor. Now I am faced with the annual task of lighting up the museum.

It's a tricky business. Only one historic room on our tour route has overhead lighting: the kitchen. Although John Henry Livingston had electricity installed at Clermont in 1923, overhead lighting was not installed in any of the parts of the house frequented by the family--instead, it was located only in servants' areas.

The photo above shows Clermont's kitchen in 1965, shortly after we received the mansion from Alice Livingston. Those three hanging fixtures are a blessing on a dark day for me; I can only imagine how much the cook appreciated them. But you can still see kersone lamps affixed to the walls. I do not know whether these were a hold-over from the pre-electricity days or meant as a back-up lighting source in case of power outages. You might also notice that our notoriously dark kitchen (in the north wing) had a skylight added in the middle somewhere around the 1860s. Apparently lighting this space has always been a bit of a chore.

That takes care of the kitchen, but what of the rest of the house? By the standards of the 1920s, John Henry installed plenty of electrical outlets throughout most of the house. Most downstairs rooms have two or three, and without a proliferation of other electrical applicances (TVs, DVD players, or stereos), this would have provided plenty of locations for plugging in lights. A number of electric lamps remain in our collections, a few of which are still used on special occassions. These would have provided a small amount of localized, low-intensity light, something familiar to both he and Alice, who grew up during the time of candles, gas, and kerosene.

Alice and John Henry's generations were accustomed to much lower levels of light than the modern American. For one thing, artificial light was not put into use on an overcast day. While many of us will turn on a lamp when the clouds get a little too thick, weaker flame-based lighting sources were generally ineffective against such gloom.

Also, one candle, the usual requirment for evening reading, throws the equivilant of about a three-watt incandescent bulb--and I complain when I am left trying to make do with a 40 watt! Candles could also be expensive, and many families tried to minimize their usage. Locating them in front of mirrors was a favorite way of doubling your light without increasing your candle usage. And Mrs. Edward Livingston was remembered fondly for the extravagance of lighting her house up "au jour" (as bright as day) during the early 19th century.

Whale oil, more genteel and more expensive still, was also commonly used, though it could be smokey. Kersoene came along in the 1850s and revolutionized home lighting with an affordable bright source (Laura Ingalls Wilder fondly described her family's single kerosene lamp in her largely autobiographical book Little House in the Big Woods), and other forms of lighting, especially argand lamps, also provided good illumination to a small area. These lamps all required daily cleaning (a task which could take hours) and continued to pose a risk of fire. At left is an image of a lamp (of indeterminate fuel) in Clermont's drawing room from the 1880s.

Gas lighting was available to many city-dwellers, and it appears as though the Livingstons may have kept a resovoir themselves. Family lore describes a gas chandelier over the billiards table in the library (both of which have since been removed) and photographic evidence from another 1880s image shows what could be a table lamp in the dining room, plugged into a gas fixture on the wall.

That brings us to the dining room: a whole story unto itself. When John Henry installed electricity in the rest of the house, he left the dining room alone. "If it [candlelight] was good enough for the Chancellor, it is good enough for me," he is reported to have said. No electrical outlets were installed there. Nor do we have evidence of a candle-burning chandelier, as we do in other rooms.

Instead, the Livingstons continued to dine by candlelight for the duration of their lives at Clermont. Six candles were used on the dining room table, and additional candleabras, boasting three candles each, were located at either end of the large room. Remember what I mentioned about people being accustomed to lower levels of light? At the estimated equivilant of three-watts per candle, this would be roughly like trying to light a very large room with a 36 watt bulb.

The secret to lighting a room with these generally weak sources comes down to one skill: lighting only the areas that you need to see. Whereas most of us are used to lighting our rooms with a broad wash of overhead light, when using candles or lamps, many dark corners usually remain: you light the dining room table, but leave some of the portraits lurking like ghosts along the walls. You light the mantel (where the mirrors bounce back extra light), but leave the sofa as a curvacious shadow in the middle of the room.

In fact, lighting in this way gives you the ability to control what people look at. With their eyes drawn to the lighter areas of the room, you can subtly direct their attention. It is an art that theatrical lighting technicians spend years studying.

We modern electricity-users can get a little romantic about our candle-light. But the fact is that electric lighting generated mass excitement for reason at the turn of the century. Its practical, generally safe, and infinitely brighter capabilities revolutionized the way we experience the night, and people gravitated to electricity spectacles like the "Illuminations" of the 1909 Steamboat Bicentennial cellebration (pictured at right in Poughkeepsie).

Every time I find myself crawling around with an extension cord and an electric lamp at Clermont, I am trying to ballance the appearance of this historic use of light with the needs of the modern, light-greedy human eye. What do we do about it? That is a long story too, and I will save it for another blog entry.