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.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Ollie's Story: Part 2

Olivek Christensen Myers was Janet and Honoria's nursemaid. Her story is one of the few from Clermont's servants that we are lucky enough to know. I wrote up much of what I could find on Ollie in August. Born in Denmark, entered America at age 25 in 1906 and employed by Alice as her children's nanny until her marriage to Christopher Myers sometime before 1920.

But it pretty much ended there. Where did Ollie go after her marriage to Christopher?

As I mentioned in the previous blog, we have a sizable stack of Ollie's post cards (about seven or eight inches thick, actually), and I had go looking through them today. They are packed with images of towns like Portland, Maine, Atlantic City, or any of several Connecticut locations. Many come from assorted vacations or travel in Europe or western America or Florida or Mexico. Some come from friends and relatives in Denmark. I had never really noticed, but they date from around the time of Ollie's move to America all the way to the 1960s. That's well after her marriage to Christopher and move away from the Livingstons.

Ordinarily I avoid looking at the backs of the post cards. The tiny, cramped handwriting--always, always in cursive!--is just a headache waiting to happen. Some are even written in Danish, which I have no training in whatsoever.

For once however, my eye was caught today by large cursive handwriting on the back of an unassuming postcard of London Tower.

There it is: "For Oli, from Janet," dated 1921. The Livingstons had taken off for Europe earlier that year, and here is eleven-year-old Janet remembering her nurse Ollie on a jaunt to England. From the address it appears as though Ollie and Christopher had returned south to Brooklyn in the Cobble Hill area.

A few years later, Honoria remembered her old nurse as well and sent her a postcard of Clermont (newly remodeled in the mid 1920s with the removal of the 19th century porch).

"We thought you might like one of these as they really make one see the house as it is know [sic]," Honoria wrote.

The most exciting postcards that I found however, suggested Ollie's family life after her years caring for the Livingston children. I found quite a few mid-century postcards addressed to "Aunt Ollie" from another girl named Ollie. Young Ollie traveled by steamer to Europe and wrote her aunt almost a dozen postcards from her numerous northern European destiantions. It was 1958, and Ollie had moved to the Bronx. In the postcard below, sent from the Swedish American Line vessel, young Olie confidently states that she is "not seasick." I wonder if Olie the elder had held on to some sickening memories from her own jounrey fifty years before...

I also found two postcards adressed to "Granny." These brief messages refer to vacations in the Catskills and Florida. "The children" are having a lovely time, the writer assures Olie, and they are visiting with a friend named Helen (I found a lot of Helen's postcards too, but her handwriting is much harder to decipher). I hope that these two postcards are from Ollie's children and grandchildren, enjoying some family vacations. The year is 1955, and a child born as late as 1922 would be old enough to have their own young children by then.

Personally, I like the thought of Ollie finally having time for children after her job with the Livingstons ended.

Sadly, the short nature of postcard notes gives us very little information, but at the very least we have the pleasant thought of Olie retrieving a little stack of mail from her front door, sorting through it, and smiling to receive the notices of her friends and family.

The latest postcard I found was dated 1966. Olie would have been about 85 years old. Was this end of her life? And how did her postcards make it back to Clermont? Many questions still remain.