Saturday, May 30, 2009

The Germantown Letters

When I happened on a transcribed collection of Alida Livingston's letters the other day, I had a glimpse into the life of a half-forgotten Livingston woman along with a sorrowful view of the settlement of nearby Germantown.

Alida Schuyler Livingston (1656-1729) and her husband Robert were a well-established and wealthy couple on a 160,000 acre manor when they agreed to let the English crown settle a group of Palatine refugees on their land in 1710. The Palatines were to manufacture naval stores (tar and other pine-based products used to maintain sailing vessels) for England in return for their passage to America. Meanwhile the English government had agreed to pay Livingston for provisioning the Palatines.

Alida and Robert have gone down in history for their role in the abysmal failure of the Palatine settlement. The English government failed to provide adequate provisions or funds, eventually leaving the couple with the choice to feed several hundred people out of their own stores or let them starve.

Alida was supervising the manor on her own in the summer of 1711 when the Palatines truly began to feel the lack of English support. When I began reading the letters, Alida's position really swung into focus for me. They paint a picture of a person caught in the worst of positions. Most of the supplies had been marched north when several hundred of the Palatine men were ordered off to join in the French and Indian War. The remaining supplies were being mismanaged. More food had to be purchased for the remaining women and children but news from Robert came that

I see that there's no money; no money [has] come out of England yet, and God knows whether money will turn up there...[There's] no money for the bread that has been supplied, and they [the Palatines] cannot think that I can do it for nothing. --July 23, 1711

Alida did her best to stick to whatever plan they had developed, but the situation quickly went downhill:

July 25, 1711
...They have now bread for 8 days and I will stop. You wrote that I should brew the beer as much as there is and now I will do so.

July 31, 1711
...I have stopped the 28th with bread baking. The Palatines have hard bread and beer from us to go up and the workers and the cooper they torment me. They say they con not live this way...If I had not hidden Kas [the baker] the would have torn him to pieces on Sunday.

July 31, 1711
I have stopped delivering bread to the Palatines...There is a great crying among the wives and children that their men have gone and have no bread or beer. I say I can not help it. They say the know it. They see without money they can not bake.

In just over a week from her husband's letter that there would be no money, the situation had become dire, with threats of violence being made at the baker. With no money forthcoming and hungry families knocking at her door, Alida was stuck between a rock and a hard place.

Stores did arrive finally in November, but the settlement continued to suffer from underfunding. Essentially andonded by the English government, the Palatines were finally freed from their endenture in the fall of 1712. Most left the area to search for opportunities elsewhere, but some 60 families remained on land given by the Livingstons to form the town of present day Germantown.

It's an interesting side note that her letters also contain the mundane details of life in rural New York during the early 18th century. For instance, the July 31st letter includes the note

You have the keys of the rough trunk and of the cashbox. You should look in your chest or in your wigbox or else your son should look in his box for I have put it in.

The idea of lost keys is one that is a little too familiar even in this day and age. Other letters read like a shopping list. Alida asks for an iron, a sadle and bridle, lace, and she has to remind her husband twice to buy shoes for herself and the children before he remembers. She relates the story of a broken kettle and updates him on the whereabouts of two of their grown sons.

The famliar tone of the letters--they preceed the heightened formality of the mid 18th century--makes these letters an interesting window onto Alida's daily lives. Business, shopping, and updates on the children's whereabouts are side-by-side with the dire picture of the lives of the Palatines. It is a very personal slice of the life of a wealthy New York woman and the many issues which faced her daily.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Alice Livingston's "Fancy Dresses Described"

I'm always pleased when my research gives me an excuse to dive into Clermont's archives. The Livingston family were avid readers and left a library of about 2,500 volumes, ranging in publication date from 1963 (The Facts of Flight: Practical Information About Operation of Private Aircraft) as far back as the seventeenth century. Given the breadth of time and the number of readers this collection represents, you never know what you are going find if you, like me, are easily distracted from your inititial goal...

My lucky find this week pertained to Alice Livingston, last generation of matriarchs at Clermont. Discovering Alice's complex charactor has been one my many pleasures here since she left us so many rich clues to her personality. In addition to donating Clermont to New York State to serve as a museum, Alice wrote personal memoirs, trained herself to sculpt, and learned to sew to keep up fashionable appearances while her family's finances were declining. From these sources, we know her primarily as a loving mother and ardent gardener.
In the late 1920s Alice sculpted this frieze of her daughters,
their nanny, and their two favorite dogs, Peggy and Gobi.

But what of Alice's younger days? Married in 1906 at age 34, she had quite a bit of life before she ever arrived at Clermont. What was it like for Alice to be a wealthy young woman in the Gay 90s?

Thus, I was tickled pink to find the book "Fancy Dresses Described" lurking in our archives. Published in the 1890s, when Alice was as prime party age, this little tome is filled with deatiled suggestions for costumed balls.

Published in the 1890s, this book offers suggestions for a host of costumes from a
cactus to Marie Antoinette, "March," and a Spider.

Costumed balls were popular in the late Victorian era, when Alice was growing up. However, unlike today, they were rarely associated with Halloween. Instead, they were more commonly related to New Years Eve or other un-related parties taking place during the social season (usually winter when the wealthy returned to the cities). The glamorous costumes portrayed within offer a different picture of the Alice, who later in life referred disparigingly to her "daily suit of homespun," paging through the book for a little inspiration.

Perhaps "Springtime in Japan" (shown at left) caught her eye, given her interest in Japanese flower arrangements. But it is even more probable that she paid attention to the "Colonial" costumes that the book featured, such as costume of the "George II" period.
Alice enjoyed replicating the 18th century whenever she had the chance--even her eldest daughter wore a Colonial-era inspired gown to her own wedding, with bridesmaids to match. In fact, several gowns in the museum's collection show evidence of having been altered after their initial construction to give a more "Colonial" impression.

While it is hardly a world-changing find, this little book has plenty of value. Building an understanding of the people who lived at Clermont happens in many ways over an extended period of time. Whether it is a recently-discovered memoir, photograph, or just a simple chachke in her collection, the things that Alice left us must be pieced together gradually to build a complete picture of the complex woman who left Clermont to the people of New York.