Saturday, August 29, 2009

Music to Our Ears

This spring we put the music back in the library.

As part of our efforts to bring Clermont to life, we installed a small stereo and began poking around in the small stack of records that we have in collections storage. This handful of recorded music was given to Clermont by Honoria in the 1980s, and is purported to have belonged to her father. It includes a few operatic pieces (my favorites being those by Lucrezia Bori), some walzes, foxtrots, and Sousa marches.

I next made a visit to, a repository of all sorts of modern and historic media, including a large gathering of early music recordings (click here to hear a collection of marches played by the Sousa band when Sousa was still conducting it!). I picked quite a few that were recorded by the same artists John Henry had chosen or, when I could not find those, many of the same songs recorded in the same time period to keep the authentic sound. I recorded them to cds where they have been livening up the library for several months now.

This recreational space was aparently where John Henry sat listening to his records when Honoria was little. Disc-shaped records began to be popular in the second and third decades of the 20th century and finally won out over their cylindrical competitors in the late 1920s.

But what of music at Clermont before the 1900s? Although Wax cylindrical recordings had been popular since the 1880s, we have none in our collections. Certainly this doesn't preclude the possibility that the Livingstons had a cyclindrical phonograph and rid themselves of it with the advent of the new media (how many of us out there are trying to get rid of our VHS cassettes as dvds become the preferred medium?). But given John Henry's reticence to accept other new technologies as they developed--notably indoor plumbing and the automobile--I tend to think there was little mechanized music at Clermont before John Henry's disc records.

To be sure, there is plenty of other evidence of music in the house. A 19th century Enlglish music box that played 10 different songs is displayed in the study, and a piano forte (the modern piano's older cousin) has been in a place of honor in the drawing room for over a century.

Before the advent of recorded music, the Livingstons, like other families, were resposible for making their own. For many young women, learning to play an instrument or sing was part of becoming an accomplished person. Not only was it an emotional, yet refined, form of expression, but it also served to entertain those around you. For instance, Jane Austin's books often feature the importance of friends singing and playing for one another at social gatherings, and in Little Women descriptions of Beth's piano skills were an important part of creating her selfless and gentle character.

Livingston portraits used in the 1986 exhibit catalogue A Portrait of Livingston Manor show three young Livingston women of the early 19th century depicted with musical insturments: Angelica (in the cream dress with a harp), Serena (in the red dress with a harp), and Coralie (with the guitar).

Similarly, we know that during the same time period as Angelica and Serena were posing for their portraits Margaret Maria, the Chancellor's daughter, was also playing the harp. Somewhere between 1804 and 1813, Her father gave her a tiny book of harp music (when closed, it is almost small enough to lay on an open hand).

A diary entry from Nancy Shippen Livingston in 1784 also references a harpsichord in the drawing room at Clermont, which toddler Peggy enjoyed hearing very much (surely a sign of child growing towards a refined adulthood).

With importance of dancing in refined society during the 18th and 19th cenuturies, there is also little doubt that professional musicians made appearnances at Clermont as well for both social events and instruction for the children. Children who had learned to play an instrument or sing for themselves could probably be heard practicing on a semi-regular basis, and eventually in the mid-ninteeth century two-person piano pieces became part of many courting rituals.
Part of recreating the life in a historic museum is recreation of the sounds. Visually, we attempt to lay out props in a way that suggests that their users have set them down for only a moment--that someone will be back to finish their tea to pick up their pen and begin writing again even as we are standing there. But there are so many more parts to what makes a house feel lived-in: sounds and smells being important additions.
So while I am working on a way to bring the smell of a coal fire to the kitchen, I hope that some of who have toured Clermont this year have noticed the jangling, tinny tunes playing in the library and that they have helped to bring the Livingstons to life for you.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Olivek Christensen Myers

Olivek (or Olivia) Christensen was one of Honoria and Janet's two nurses during their childhood, and of the two she was at Clermont the longest. Her close interaction with the children and Alice has made her story the best known of any of Clermont's servants.

Before coming to Clermont, we know that she emigrated from Jutland, Denmark in 1906 at the age of 25. A quick search of the Ellis Island database suggests that she came on a medium-sized steamer called the Hellig Olav out of Copenhagen. By that fall she was working as a nurse in a hospital in New York City, and within a few years Ollie was hired by Alice Livingston to leave the crowded, bustling city and move to the comparatively quite estate of Clermont on the Hudson River.

At Clermont, "Ollie" slept in a sizable attic room, probably with the second nurse, a German woman named Madeleine Bocbel, and they spent their days with Alice's two infants. Though wiltingly hot in the summer, the room boasted bright morning sunlight and a beautiful view of the gardens.

At Clermont Ollie was part of staff of eleven people, including gardeners, a cook, chambermaids, and butler. There were several other Scandinavian servants, two Finish women and a woman from Norway, but only one other woman from Denmark with whom she could speak Danish if she ever got homesick. Common practice for the era suggests that she and the other servants had their Sunday afternoons off which would have given them time to walk the 2 1/2 miles to Tivoli, the nearest town--if they'd cared to. As the children got older, eventually Madeleine left, but Ollie staid on. Governesses soon joined her in supervising the children's growth and education.

We get snatches of Ollie's personal life through the Livingston's oral history just as we get glimpses of her face in the backgrounds of their photographs. For instance, at Christmastime, Honoria and Janet put up the "Ollie tree," a second Christmas tree for their beloved nurse, who once told them that she missed the tradition of handmade, natural tree ornaments from her homeland (the staff still carry on this tradition, making new ornaments for it each year).

Another story, recorded by Alice, referenced her uniform. Janet was once extolling her highly fashionable aunt when she saw "Nursie" surveying her own white uniform. When Janet declared "I love aunty because she is so stylish," Ollie asked what this meant about her status. Janet replied exuberantly, "Why, I'd love you if you were bare!" Dressing in the white uniform of a nurse every firmly declared her job to both coworkers and visitors. Ollie was aware that everyone who saw her at Clermont would see her first as a nursemaid and second as Olivek Christensen.

In Clermont's collections a small stack of post cards remains a reminder of Ollie's relationships with friends and family both in America and back in Denmark. Most have only short notes on them (reminding me very much of the brief entries on a Twitter or Facebook page). They say things like "Olivia, Hope you are feeling well --A.C. or "Cleaning to receive company." Others are written Danish and have not yet been translated. They were little momentos that reminded her of the outside world, or of people she missed. I wonder whether she reciprocated and what her notes looked like?

Sometime between 1915 and 1921 Ollivek married Christopher Myers, the Livingston's coachman, and left the service of the Livingstons. In her mid thrities, Ollie would probably have been happy to finally have her own household and hopefully children to care for. Unfortunately, we do not know what became of her after this. I can only hope that she went on to do the things she wanted.

While it is fairly uncommon to have the personal stories of the servants of a large estate such as Clermont, stories like Mary Poppins and even Peter Pan indicate the difference in status held by a nursemaid and remind us how important they were to the families that hired them. Often spending as much or more time with the children than their own parents, it was a position of responsibility and hopefully one that held some some personal rewards, as working with children often does.

As with most recollections of servants, what is sadly absent from our understanding of Ollie is her own voice. Currently, I know of know notes or letters that she wrote, and she left few belongings behind when she departed for married life. Most of what we know of her comes from her employers. Not only that but Clermont took only about ten years of her life. What of the rest of it?
What we know of Olivek Christensen Myers is limited, but valuable because it makes up another piece of the rich history of life here at Clermont. I often wonder what she would have to say about life at Clermont? What stuck in her mind about Janet, Honoria, Alice, and John Henry? What stories could she add about evenings in the attic servants' quarters or lunch around the servants' table in the kitchen? Sadly, I will probably never know.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Dog Blog

Dogs, were a part of life at Clermont probably beginning as soon as the Livingstons settled in with their furniture. Animals were most certainly present from day one, and the term "pet" was already coming into use to denote a preferred or "favorite," an animal or person to whom one devoted extra attention and love. The term "pet" was even used into the 19th century to refer to a special child.

While dogs and other animals have always been part of human life, they were most commonly viewed for many years as utilitarian beings. Cats were present to kill mice. Farm animals provided food and materials. Hunting dogs, shepherds, terriers, and other working breeds all served a purpose. Only certain animals were singled out for friendship, the most famous being royal examples (for instance Marie Antoinette lamented her separation from her favorite pug when she traveled from Austria to France for her wedding to Louis XVI).

Young King Charles II of England with his famed spaniels

The Livingstons, by nature of their priviledged status, would most likely also have been able to indulge in such luxuries as relationships with pets as early as the 18th century. By the Victorian era, pet dogs became linked closely with childhood, and their presence in the home became commonplace.

As an adult John Henry Livingston had a Jack Russell terrier named Soda, who met an untimely end at the hand of "ruffians" in Tivoli in 1902. His grief at Soda's death lead him to have a marble headstone carved for his pet, which located in the pet cemetary near an earlier grave, dated 1893. (Unfortunately, this second grave appears to be marked only "Dead" and the date so we do not know any more about the animal beneath. The font is difficult to read however, and we are interested if anyone else can venture a guess on what it might say.)

However, it was Alice Livingston's predeliction for pets that turned Clermont into a veritable dog house in the early 20th century. Alice loved dogs more than all her other pets, and she appears to have kept them close by her side throughout her life. In fact, she posed for several formal photographs with her dogs during her youth.

Pet photography was as yet uncommon, and these images are an important indication of Alice's relationship with her pets beginning as early as her mid-teens. Additional photographs show her with a pit bull and a cocker spaniel as well as the border collie shown here.

When Alice married John Henry and moved to Clermont, she continued to aquire more dogs who quickly became family members.

When her children were two and three in 1912, Alice and John Henry purchase an "English bloodhound puppy" named Bonhampton Lion--well, that was what they tried to name him. Honoria instisted on the more child-friendly moniker of Rufus. Rufus became the children's constant companion and appears in many photographs of their early life.

Later, when the family traveled to Italy in 1921, they brought their dogs and even purchased more during their occupancy. Erin (breed unknown) was sent back to America for killing chickens, but two borzois and a great Dane soon followed in his place. A Skye terrier was also picked up in England and an exotic Lhasa Apso (which she referred to as a Llasa terrier as was common around 1900) traveled with them as well.

Alice's younger daughter Janet appears to have followed in her mother's footsteps as a dog lover. She was a known supporter of the still-young Humane Society and appears to have had some interest in the earliest days of the Seeing Eye, the first organization to train guide dogs for the blind. Amongst her belongings we found a a program for a dinner in memory of Buddy, one of the first guide dogs. She was also portrayed in art closely entwined with one of her dogs as a teenager in Italy.

Late in life, Alice wrote a memoir several pages long chronicling the importance of dogs in her life. "In the course of a long life I and my family have brought up 20 different breeds of dogs...." she wrote. In a document several pages long (of which only three survive), she detailed most of the pets she had owned, beginning with the Skye terrier of her early childhood--"a real 'Grey Friar's Bobby' of a dog," in her opinion. Sadly, one of the prominent features of this memoir is the deaths of several of these dogs. For Alice, as for many pet owners, her close relationships with her pets lead to painful, life-long memories of their short lifespans. Much like the enduring tale of Soda's death, the deaths of her pit bull, Wagon the greyhound, and others were etched forever on the family's history.

Dog paraphanalia is a big part of Clermont's collections, and I took a quick spin through some of them today as I prepared this blog. A few objects relating to dog care remain, including several wicker dog beds and a water bowl that resembles one I myself owned as a child. Other objects are decorative item that have a dog theme. The little guy pictured on the left is an unaccessioned clay figurine that came from Honoria's cottage after her death. The other is a 19th century decorative statuette whose depiction of a small sight hound has always been one of my favorites since it so closely resembles a whippet.

One of my favorite decorative, dog-themed artifacts in the mansion is a figurine sculpted by Alice, which depicts a kneeling woman looking into a small dog's face. The intimacy of this gesture is touchingly familiar to any of us who have ever taken a moment to subject our dogs to "kisses."

Clermont is still a destination for dog lovers. Like most New York State Parks and Historic Sites, we are pleased to welcome leashed dogs. I am forever happy that many local visitors take advantage of our 5 miles of trails for regular walks with their dogs, and on any given day a visitor to Clermont can see poodles, a Hovawart, dobermans, American Eskimos, and spritely little mutts getting some exercise. It is pleasure to me that our doggy history continues in the spirit of these many beasties and their human companions.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Do You Know How to Set a Table Correctly?

"Do you know how to set a table correctly?
Are you familiar with the right linen and silver to use for every occassion?"

These are the rather dictatorial questions printed on the cover of Table Service and Decoration, a 1935 entertaining manual I found in Alice's library. My 21st century brain reacted first with derision (the right linens and silver?) and then with a kind of anxiety (is there a right way? Am I doing it wrong?).

Clermont's table changes seasonally, and Alice's little book has been very handy to me over the past few years as I have dressed her dining table for Christmas, Halloween, and regular day-to-day operations. The hard-and-fast rules presented in this book always boggle me, whether I wind up following them or not, because the way Americans view table decorations and settings has changed so dramatically over the past century. Let's be honest here, I barely learned which side the napkin goes on, let alone the red wine, white wine, and water glass. A glimpse of the knife diagram on page 36 made me actually jump a little.

But for centuries in Western culture, dining properly has been a mark refinement and "good breeding." In the 18th century, it became the aspiration of many families to more than just fill their table with food, but also to aquire sets of matching tablewares and to learn to use them properly. Adopting practices such as using napkins to wipe their mouths or setting aside spoons or knives for the use of forks helped enable people to move with dignity through elite social circles.

By the mid-nineteenth century, the industrial revolution made goods cheaper and put this goal within reach of a broad spectrum of Americans. The market was flooded with relatively cheap sets of matching pressed glass. Setting the table correctly became every housewife's responsiblity.
Alice was born in 1873, and grew up at the tail end of the Victorian era. Rules for the use and placement of these objects had become rigid and as elabrate as the glittering dishes themselves. How-tos could be found in any number of household manuals, or even came in Godey's Lady's Book magazine, as shown below.

And if every middle-class housewife in the country had access to the tools to set an attractive table, you can be sure that the upper class were not permitting themselves to be outdone.

Written in 1935, Alice's little book of Table Service and Decoration postdates much of this epicurian one-upmanship. Nevertheless, the rigidity of ettiquette had still not entirely released its hold over the American public. A diagram on page 103 details how to properly hold glasses, pitchers, and tea cups. Beverage service is detailed thus:

"When pouring the beverage, the cup and saucer, should be placed between the hostess' cover and the pot, with the handles of the cup at the right hand of the hostess. The sugar is placed on the left of the handle of the cup..." and so on.

The idea of detailed instructions being required just serve a friend tea might seem daunting, but the concept of a right and wrong way to dine came from centuries of people trying distinguish themselves from the rabble. Knowing how to eat properly, set a table "correctly," and chose "the right linen and silver for every occassion" was a way of marking oneself as worthy and refined.
"Do you know how to set a table correctly?
Are you familiar with the right linen and silver to use for every occassion?"

To be sure, we of the 21st century have not totally abandoned table ettiquett. Just a look around you at a nice restaurant will remind you what we still hold dear: people with their napkins in their laps, eating with silverware balanced neatly in their hands, and not stealing food off each other's plates (at least not without getting an indignant "hey!" from the victim of the theft). Have you ever found yourself thinking, "I can't believe they just did that at a restaurant"?
But in general the formal theatrics of American dining have relaxed over the past few generations. Things that would have appalled our fellow diners in the 1870s are now commonplace. While none of us are likely to wipe our mouths on the tableclothes (as people had to learn not to do in the 18th century), we are not ashamed to hold our wineglass incorrectly. And while I don't use my poinsettia tablecloth in June, I also don't writhe with anxiety about chosing the right one for April.
This little book of Alice's was written in a tricky time that straddled the period over which those changes took place, and I'm glad to have it at my side when I am interpretting her dining room--even if I am a little aghast at the idea of being shamed by not following some of its rules.