Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Young Wife: The Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen, Part 3

The Shippen family had much to celebrate on New Year's Day in 1782. In the 18th century, New Year's Day was celebrated with social events, dancing, dinners, and gifts, often overshadowing the smaller, more religious holiday of Christmas (quite the reverse of today).

Their only daughter Nancy could not take part in these social events. Having successfully managed the frightening ordeal of childbirth, she was still in bed "lying-in.". For a period ranging between a week and as much as a month, Nancy would have rested in bed, accepting visits from well-wishers (hopefully bearing gifts!) and friends as she regained her strength and got to know her "little stranger," as babies were often reffered to in the 18th century. (for more images of motherhood, like the Gilbert Stuart portrait of Mrs. Griffin Gatliff & daughter at right, visit here).

Motherhood in the late 18th century had changed a bit for aristocratic women, and Nancy expected to build a close personal relationship with her daughter. Baby Peggy quickly became "sweet Peggy," the "Darling Baby," and the "Angel child." The practice of nursing children (instead of having a wet nurse) had also become popular again for wealthy women in Nancy's mother's generation, and enlightment practices lead to viewing children more and more as little people in need of individual attention instead of little savages needing stearn discipline. Nancy spoke with tenderness of her relationship with Peggy. She describes "caressing" her, dressing her (instead of letting the nursemaid do it), nursing her through illnesses, and interupting her own activities to respond to the girl's cries.

Nancy was glad to be back home in Philadelphia after her six-month stint as a new wife at Clermont. She was close with both her mother and father, and she found that she needed them all the more now that she was a wife. Her marriage to Henry Beekman Livingston was proving to be more difficult than expected.

She was now aware of his rages and his controling demeanor. Soon, her mother-in-law informed her of Henry's sizable brood of bastard children (some of mixed race, a touchy issue in the 18th century). But conventions of the 18th century made her believe it was her own responsibility to earn her husband's faithfulness. In her own words, all a woman could do was:

" not hope to bring back a husband by complaints, ill humor, or reproaches. The only means which promise success, are patience & softness...In sacrificing your own will, pretend to no right over that of a husband..."

And so, like many other elite wives in similar situations, she decided to pack up and return with her daughter to Clermont. Perhaps she could still win him back. She was, after all, a pretty young woman who had just given him a child. And besides, if she did not return to him, she few legal rights. As her husband, he had all of the rights over their finances (and her parents were still feeling the wartime pinch themselves so their support may have been limited), and worse still he had legal right to custody of their child to the extent that he could even completely deny her access if he saw fit. If she did not return, she faced the risk of becoming a deserted charity case, living off friends and family and never seeing her child.
During this time back at Clermont, we lose the written record of Nancy's life. No letters between she and her family survive, and she had not yet begun the journal that is so descriptive later on down the road. We know that Nancy's relationship with the family matriarch Margaret Beekman Livingston strengthened, and she built closer bonds as well with the other nearby wives--particularly Janet Livingston Montgomery (the Chancellor's older sister, now a widow) and Mary Stevens Livingston (the Chancellor's wife who was also a transplant to the Hudson River Valley from New Jersey). She also turned to the packet of letters she had kept from her courtship with Louis Otto for comfort, though she did not yet re-open communication with her old beau. She was going to make the best of this situation.

Until she found out Henry's latest plan: to gather all of his children (legitimate Peggy alongside the other non-elite children) in one house and raise them together. Combined with the verbal and emotional abuse she probably suffered, it all became too much for her in the early spring of 1783. She packed up her one-year-old Peggy and fled back to Philadelphia to be with her parents.

Facing an uncertain future with possible social, financial, and personal ruin, it was at this time that she began to pour her feelings into her journal. This is the most vivid part of Nancy's life that we have recorded, and it begins with sad entry, showing her father's support and tardy recognition of the poor choice he had lead his daughter to:
April 10th--"After breakfast rode out with [my father]. Had a conversation about [Henry and Louis Otto]. His sentiments corresponding with mine made me extremely happ--wou'd to God it was a happiness that would last--but the die is cast--& my life must be miserable! [Father] sees the consequencies of my unhappy choice too late..."

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Angel Child: The Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen, Part 2

A full week of festivities would most likely have left the Shippen family exhausted and exhilarated in March of 1781. They had much to celebrate. Their daughter Nancy had, at 18 years old, secured herself into the prominent Livingston family, and to her fate must have seemed secure.

Nancy, her new husband Henry, and her father took advantage of the relatively peaceful spring in the northeast to travel up the North River to Rhinebeck (don't forget, there was still a war going on, though most of the focus had moved south with the English army that year). By carriage and sloop, the trio most likely made it by the end of the month to introduce the pretty young girl to her new family where she was safely deposited. By this time, Nancy was already pregnant with her first child.

Letters went slowly back and forth between Nancy and her family. She was busy with introducing herself to local society ladies and getting her house organized, as was expected of her. "If you encourage your natural good temperment, tis calculated to make every body happy around you & love you," advised her father. It was only half in jest when he told her he would be "much dissapointed" if she were not to become a popular and successful wife.

There were many people to meet. Janet Livingston Montgomery, she, and the Chancellor's wife Mary Stevens Livingston were all to become good friends. Her mother-in-law and the matriarch of the family, Margaret Beekman Livingston (at right) also took to the girl quickly.

In spite of enduring the difficulties of the war and still being in the process of rebuilding her house after a British attack, Margaret (or as Nancy affectionately called her "the Old Lady") was quick to sympathize with Nancy's situation. It wasn't just being pregnant at 18 that was going to be difficult for the girl. In fact, although she was a little young on the young side for marriage at that point in history, pregnancy was still considered a blessing--if a somewhat frightening one.

The problem was that Henry was already the black sheep of the Livingston family, news that had apparently not been adequately carried down to Nancy's home in Philadelphia. He had a small collection of illegitimate children and a temper which could get him in trouble. In the 4th new York Regiment he had been known for being quarrelsome in camp and been reprimanded for making unflattering remarks about a senior officer. He was proud, controling, and could be violent on occassion.

When Nancy attempted to return to her parents' comforting arms to give birth to her baby, trouble arose. At first it was hoped that Henry would come with her. "We insist on the Colonels accompanying you and staying here as long as he can..." wrote her father in July. it only made sense. She would need protection and company on the road, and her parents would have loved to see the "happy couple" together.
But the situation deteriorated. Henry refused to go. Her parents encouraged her to use her "influence," but to no avail. Her mother was particularly upset: "I have sent [to] France for Baby Linnen but you must expect nothing from me unless you come here." Perhaps, they relented as a last resort, they would come to New York to get her without her husband.
In October, about six months pregnant, Nancy was becoming fightened: Henry now refused to let her go either. "Col. L. has told me positively I shall not come," she wrote on Oct 4, 1781. "O!--my dear Mama what a cruelty to deprive me of being with the best of Parents at such a critical period."
Finally, with a great deal of convincing and the exchange of official "papers," Henry allowed her uncle Joe to fetch her to Philadelphia. It would have been a long, cold, and painful ride for a woman in her condition (in any condition it would have been at the least uncomfortable), but at least she woul dhave the comfort of her family around her through the frightening ordeal of labor.
On December 26, 1781, Nancy gave birth to her first and only child, a girl she named after her mother-in-law Margaret Beekman Livingston. She was instantly called her mother's "angel child."
This ordeal was not the end of Nancy's woes however. A new child would not calm Henry's temper. "Peggy" was to become the center of her world and, more ominously, the center of a major custody battle that involved multiple families, more trips between Pennsyvania and the Hudson Valley and many tears.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

The Lover and the Suitor: the Sorrowful Tale of Nancy Shippen Part 1

I have alluded several times to the sad story of Nancy Shippen but always avoided it on the blog because I try to stay at least a little upbeat. But Nancy's story is interesting in so many ways, and her richly-detailed journal adds depth to the story. Since it is such a good story, I will drag it out into a few parts, beginning with how her marriage to a Livingston started all her woes.

Anna Home Shippen--Nancy to her friends and family--was a Philadelphia socialite with plenty of charm and good prospects. Her family was wealthy and well-connected. She grew up in a fine brick home on Locust Street, got a lady's education, and hob-knobbed with many names still familiar to even the most casual Revolutionary War scholar: Washingston, Lafayette, and of course the Livingstons.

Nancy divided her time between a dizzying array of social visits and tea with with friends, shopping, and pleasant entertainments at home in the parlor. "Miss Nancy before the teatable, in an artfully neglected Dress, her hairs flying a little upon her neck, appearing sometimes to be absent, sometimes forcing a laughter by a soft inclination of her back and head, and by hiding her face with her hands, probably in order to shew them without being suspected of vanity; changing her Seat several times, but always pretty far from the the candel..." she was described in 1779.

In the spring of 1779 Nancy's very pretty cousin Peggy secured an excellent marriage to the well-respected Bennedict Arnold, coupled with the deed to an fine home. Her fortunes and future seemed to be secured. A romantic 16-year-old herself, Nancy was well aware that it was time for her to be looking around for a good man too, and she quickly wrapped several around her fingers.

Bennedict Arnold's friend Henry Beekman Livingston (the Chancellor's younger brother) had had his eye on Nancy for a little while now. A bit of a ladies man, he was 29 and had established a somewhat dubious career in the Continental Army, alternately winning commondations for his successes and stirring up ugly troubles with his hot-headedness. Nevertheless, coming from the extremely prominent and wealthy Livingston family gave him a lot of merrit as a pontential future mate. He was a regular guest in the Shippen parlor at the front of the house, where he took the opportunity to visit with Nancy.

Henry probably did not realize (or maybe he did) that his visits were beginning to supplant those of Louis Otto, a 25-year-old Frenchman, with whom Nancy had been exchanging tokens of love for several months now. Louis was working as a secretary to the Chevalier de la Luzerne, a French diplomat living in the city. Louis's prospects were still shakey, and Nancy's father was not as sure that Louis would be as well suited to take care of his daughter and future grandchildren.

Nancy's mother was more keenly aware of something else though. The two youths had been exchanging letters, music, and sappy poetry with great fervor. "Never was pleasure equal to mine when I read the few flattering lines," responded Louis to one of Nancy's letters. He began visiting daily for tea, and the two could often be found together before the harpsichord playing the music he had written her, his thick French accent adding exotic charm to the family parlor.
The letters the two exchanged were thick with the heightened sentimentality that was popular in the day. The two appear to wait with baited breath for the other's next word: "I studied your conduct since I have the pleasure of knowing you, nothing escaped my watchful eye. Lovers are very quick sighted; every little unmeaning favour is precious for them; this Evening I received my tea from you own hands whilst the rest of the Company was served by a black Servant. Perhaps you did not think on it, but I have valued it more than any thing I ever received from another hand," wrote Otto once. Even if their language was a little over-dramatic, it was clear that Nancy and Otto had developed strong feelings for one another.

"But aye, there's the rub," as they say, because we've already noted that Otto's prospects were not all that stable: he was not guaranteed to advance in his position, and if he did marry Nancy--which was the goal for any romances at this point--you have to wonder if he was going to whisk away Dr. Shippen's little girl to some far-off land. Henry, on the other hand, came from one of the wealthiest and best-established family's in New York, if not in the whole fledgling nation.

Parents did not usually arrange their children's marriages in the 18th century, but parental approval was still important. And Dr. Shippen, as head of the household, did have ways to encourage his daughter to favor one man over the other: He continued to allow Henry to visit at his pleasure, but limited Louis's visits to only twice a week.

Louis was sad, but still confident that Nancy prefered him over Henry. From his letters, it appears that the two had already agreed to get married. Now with limited access, he started taking daily walks by the Shippen house, now peering sadly in through the parlor windows, where once he had sat warmly receiving tea from the hands of his dear lady. Spending more time with Henry seemed to be increasing the bond between Nancy and her father's preferred suitor, but Louis did not know how much yet.

"I had not the courage this Evening of seeing you, for fear of acting against the command of your Mama, but I walk'd close by your house, as I do every Day," wrote Otto. "I pass'd just when Mr L...happened to hold one of your hands and to look very happy; you seem'd to be very happy yourself and this unhappy Discoverie mad[e] me, for one moment, the most miserable creature in the world; I felt in the time every torments of jealousy and all my old suspicions were revived."

What was a girl to do? Marriage was a decision that was going to affect the quality of the rest of her life so a wise choice was important. Louis Otto knew this was an obstacle. "Your P[apa] knows that my Fortune can not be compared with that of [Livingston] therefore he prefers him," he later wrote. Unable to have a career of her own that would influence her station in life (as modern women can expect), Nancy's financial situation in adulthood would be entirely dependant on her husband. Selecting one with uncertain prospects could affect the health and well-being of herself and any future children she had. Especially as her own family's fortunes were feeling the pressures of the ongoing war for independence, this was a critical decision to be made by a 16-year-old girl. Perhaps love could grow between she and Henry if she tried hard enough...

In the end, pragmatism or pressure from her family or some combination thereof finally won out. It was Henry Beekman Livingston who won the lady's selection. Louis Otto was devestated. "I do not see for what reason in this free Country a Lady of Sixteen years...must be married in a hurry and given up to a man whom she dislikes..." he wrote in dismay when he found out. The letter was long and ended with the pathetic declaration "My own tears begin to mix with my inck, and forbid me to Continue. I am yours for ever; though perhaps you will never be mind."

Nancy and Henry were married at her father's house on March 14th, 1781. The festivities in connection with the wedding were lavish, lasting a full week. Her brother was away at school and apparently sent his regards in a letter as we can tell from Dr. Shippen's reply "Your Sister thanks you for your good wishes & is much pleased that her choice meets your approbation..."
But perhaps the teenage girl was beginning to feel the gravity of the decision she had made. According to her father, "She insists on my going with her to the North River to see her fixed in her own Mansion..."
Was the fear of leaving her childhood home, family, and friends suddenly sinking in? The realities of the world she was about to face (and which she could never have predicted) were to be far more frightening.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Ghosts in the Basement: Clermont Gets Ready for Legends by Candlelight

Clermont State Historic Site’s basement is full of ghosts! Volunteers and staff are getting their corsets and tricorn hats ready to play historic spirits in the Legends by Candelight Spook Tours. I've already spent several afternoons digging down through boxes of petticoats or borrowing from near and far to be sure that every spirit has just the right costume (I have to say that the costumes are one of my favorite parts).

The Legends by Candlelight Spook Tours are the highlight of Clermont’s fall season. Guests who come to Clermont for the tours will find themselves welcomed into a 1921 Halloween party complete with fortune telling and a reproduction 1916 Ouija board. When the séance goes wrong however, the lights go out, and the house is filled with ghosts from Clermont's history. This year, we are highlighting characters from the 18th century. You can look out for Margaret Beekman Livingston (who died suddenly in our dining room, according to the family story), Nancy Shippen Livingston, Chancellor Livingston and his wife, and even bump into some more threatening characters from the same period (I won't spoil all the surprises). Ladies lament and soldiers prowl the land. You never know who you will find around the next corner!

These very popular tours are geared towards adults and children 7 years and up. Visitors on the Spook Tours will tour the mansion at its creepiest and meet ghosts from Clermont’s history. Tours run every half hour from 6:00 to 9:30 on Fridays and Saturdays, October 22, 23, 29, and 30. Rain or (moon)shine tickets are $10 for adults and $4 for children (12 and under) and go on sale October 1. Reservations are strongly encouraged. Advanced purchase is available. Call (518) 537-4240 or visit for more information.

This is a rare “Clermont After Dark” tour that will take guests through the mansion and out onto the grounds for a lamp-lit adventure along the Hudson River. If you can't make it at night, try visiting us during the daytime to see the decorations. As you know from following my blog, they are inspired by the 1920s, the “golden age” of Halloween and meticulously researched from period magazines and design manuals. See a real old-fashioned Halloween or just get ideas for your own decorations this year!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Weddings at Clermont

Over seven generations of Livingstons, Clermont has been the home of about 33 children, and during that time, it has seen its fair share of weddings. What did these weddings at Clermont look like? Well, it depends on which one you mean.

Stretching over a span of 191 years, these weddings would have differed greatly from one another. Wedding traditions and practices changed greatly over the years, and one bride's dream wedding might be simply unthinkable to the next.

Family stories and documentation exist about five different weddings and receptions at Clermont. Though more couples most likely tied the knot here in each generation, these are the ones we know:

  • Janet Livingston to Richard Montgomery (1773),

  • Elizabeth Stevens Livingston to Edward Philip Livingston and Margaret Maria Livingston to Robert L. Livingston (both in the late 1790s),

  • Katherin Livingston to Lawrence Timpson (1900),

  • and Honoria Livingston to Rex McVitty (1931).

Janet Livingston was part of the first generation to get married at Clermont. She was the eldest of ten children when she married a handsome Irishman named Richard Montgomery not long before her 30th birthday. Although older than some brides for the time, Janet's late marriage was her own choice. Arranged marriages were not common by the last quarter of the eighteenth century, and Janet was waiting for a love match. Richard was it.

The Wedding of Stephen Beckingham and Mary Cox, 1729, Hogarth

In July of 1773, the two were married at Clermont, in the family's best room, the drawing room. They would most likely have been surrounded by a moderate gathering of friends and family as well as a few bridesmaids and groomsmen. After her religious ceremony, Janet and Richard would have sat down to a splendid afternoon dinner (accompanied by much drinking and toasting). Fashionable wedding desserts included candy and maple sugar molded into shapes, like the sheep at right. Wedding cake, or Bride's Cake was just coming into fashion. It would have been heavily spiced and remenscent of modern fruit cakes.

Let's hope Janet got a chance to dance at ther wedding. High society valued dancing as a social activity that also betrayed good breeding and status. Of course, they weren't dancing the YMCA: “After dinner we danced cotillions, minuets, Virginia and Scotch reels, country dances, jigs, etc. till ten o’clock. I had the pleasure of Miss McCall for a partner. . . The bride and bridegroom led off the different country dances . . . After supper, which was as elegant as the dinner . . . we continued dancing till twelve," wrote a Virginian about another wedding he attended in 1785.

We don't know what the Janet wore, but we can only assume it was something fabulous, according to her wealthy station. Unlike today's wedding dresses, it would have blended into the fashions of the day for more formal events. These were gowns that could, and most likely would, have seen successive wearings instead of being boxed up and stored as a memory.

Silk would have been prefered: damask, satin, taffeta--you name it. White was the choice for some of her contemporaries, but she may also have selected yellow, green, or almost anything else that caught her fancy. Just so long as the dress showed bride at her best, it was the right choice. The dress shown at right is a dress from the collections of Colonial Williamsburg, reported to have been worn for a 1756 wedding. Its wide square neckline was popular for the era, and would have shown off a healthy dose of cleavage (also fashionable).

White did find its way into the celebration in other ways. That old standard of Kindgarten art class, the paper chain, was a popular wedding decoration, and it had to be clean, white paper. Paper was expensive, and white unused paper made a good showy decoration. If the wedding cake was iced (which was not always the case), that was likely to be white as well.

When it came time for Janet's neices Margaret Maria and Betsy to get married some 25 years later, family story asserts that her mother Margaret Beekman Livingston insisted that they also be married in Clermont's drawing room in front of the fireplace. By this time, an obsession with the neoclassical had made white a popular color for dresses for all occassions, so these two ladies (both young brides in their teens) could very possibly have worn white gowns or white gowns with a pattern. Still, plenty of decolotage would have been an important feature. Twenty years later, white would become even more common, as described by this New England farmer of her wedding in 1812 "I wore a white India muslin, the skirt edged by an ornamental border wrought in colored worsted; bands of similar embroidery finished the neck and short sleeves, with a girdle to match…Mr. Emery had a blue coat with brass buttons; drab pants, white vest, a drab overcoat, and a very stylish black beaver; we both wore white kids [gloves]."

With the cerenmony still at home, they would only have had to cross the hall to the dining room for their bridal dinner, probably with many of the same accoutrments that Janet's wedding had had twenty years earlier. The dances may have changed a bit, but the English country dances were still the most popular.

According to Old Sturbridge Village, "Although advice literature and conventional wisdom stressed the importance of seeking a mate who would not prove to be a disappointment in the role of husband or wife, love—physical attraction, in addition to emotional and, for some couples, spiritual compatibility—was at the center of early nineteenth-century marriage and courtship. Men and women were urged to choose prudently but never to ignore the feelings of their hearts." Hopefully Margaret Maria and Betsy felt okay about marrying their cousins. From everything we know, they did.

However, some women were given strong encouragement by their parents to chose a mate that met with parental approval. In the case of Nancy Shippen (who married Margaret Maria and Betsy's uncle some ten years earlier), the pull of Livingston wealth and security was enough for her father to pressure her very heavily to forgoe her emotional connection to a Frech diplomat with an uncertain future. Sadly, this relationship was a total failure that resulted in a separation and harrowing battle for custody of their single daughter.

The next wedding at Clermont that we have documentation of is that of Katherine Livingston to Lawrence Timpson more than a century later in 1900. Traditions had changed quite a bit by this time, and so had Clermont. Though the house now carried with it the stately power of age, it was no longer adequate to meet with all of the requirements of a society wedding. Instead, her wedding ceremony was held about a mile away in a nearby church with the wedding breakfast being served in Clermont's dining room (where Janet, Margaret Maria, and Betsy's had all been before).

Katherine's wedding also bore the extra pressure of being covered in the local newspaper, The Tivoli Times, in rather complete detail. "On Saturday June 2nd at high noon in St. Paul's church, Tivoli, Miss Katharine Livingston... was married to Lawrence Timpson, Esq. of maizeland, Red Hook, in the presence of distinguished guests," it began. Even a number of the important guests' names were listed. I imagine the pressure to impress would have been significant.

It is lucky for us that Katherine's wedding did get written up this way since we now have an excellent description of the event, decorations, etc. For instance, we know that her decorations were mainly floral, and they were coordinated between the church and house. According to the newspaper, they "were beautiful and elaborate, the colors being white and green with a dainty touch of pink. The chancel was banked with tall palms enlived by large bunches of lillies and white roses with festoons of pink and white roses along the chancel rail." And the bridal procession was to orchestral music provided by Seidel's Philharmonic Orchestra.

And what did Katherine wear? White had gradually become a common color for wedding dresses as the nineteenth century progressed--especially after Queen Victoria selected for her wedding in 1840. "The bride wore a gown of white satin profusely trimmed with rare old point lace and a beautiful lace veil fastened with organe blossoms [also like Queen Victoria] and carried a boquet of lillies of the valley." Her corset was stiff; her petticoats were numerous and rustling; her neckline was high. Her bridesmaids wore matching white organdy dresses and carried bouquets of their own.

After the wedding, it was just the bridal party that returned to Clermont to share in the catered wedding breakfast. No reception with dancing was necessary. After the breakfast and some socializing, the bride and groom proceeded straight to their new home in Red Hook.

This was the first wedding at Clermont to be captured in a photograph. It was an uncommon practice to photograph weddings at this point in time; many couples chose to get a commemorative photograph at a later date so gathering the entire party up on the day of the event was a pretty special moment.

Thirty-one years later, when Honoria Livingston married Rex McVitty, she too celebrated a "first" in Clermont weddings. Her's was the first wedding at Clermont to be filmed. Two minutes of film have survived, and a cd of these motion pictures was given to Clermont in 2009. They show Honoria and Rex exited St. Paul's church (just like Katherine), showered with rice and smiling happily. There are about three seconds of film showing the moment caputred on photograph above. It was a very breezy day, and Honoria's dress blew wildly in the wind as Janet, the bridemaides, and groomsmen got into place. as well as a good bit more footage from their lunchtime reception on Clermont's back lawn.

The hors d'oeuvres were served by maids in black with white aprons. Children and families smile and sit on folding chairs while they enjoy large slices of frosted cake. They also smile nervously and dodge the camera whenever they see it following them.

The last moment caught on film is Honoria and Rex, changed into casual clothing and awaiting their train to their honeymoon. After their wedding, the two took off for Ireland, where Rex would introduce his new bride to his parents for the first time. A photo from just a few days later shows them on their cruise ship, trying out its amenities (who knew foosball went back to the 1930s?)

While the Livingstons may not live here any longer, Clermont's rolling hills still play host to many weddings during the warm seasons. While traditions and common practices have changed over the centuries, many people like the continuity of feeling that what they do at their wedding is connected to long string of brides and grooms throughout history. Knowing that so many couples have started the next pages of their lives together here can add a touch of continuity to the day.

And, of course, the view is stunning.

If you are interested in holding your wedding at Clermont, please contact our wedding coordinator Roberta Nolan at (518) 537-4240 for a complete packet of wedding information.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Archival Treasures: Janet's Silhouette

With all of the interest we've had in our silhouette postings, I try to keep my eye out for Livingston silhouettes while I am going about my usual business. While doing some research about Janet in the archives Saturday, I was lucky enough to happen across this.

This silhouette, marked 1921, shows Janet Livingston at age 11. This would have been during the Livingston's travels in Europe. It was apparently during one of their jaunts to England, where they visited Janet's half sister Katherine Timpson, because the address imprinted on the card 290 Oxford St., London, W.

The silhouette is cut from black paper, adhered to a white piece of cardstock, the cardstock printed with all of the studio or artists's advertising material. Handrup, the name on the piece, described this little silhouette as "A quick study silhouette portrait, cut with scissors entirely freehand in one minute."

Janet looks particularly smart in her tam 'o' shanter hat, with her chin up and long, girlish hair trailing down her back. Janet was the more boisterous of the two sisters so I imagine that a one-minute portrait was perfectly suited to her.

I don't know if Honoria got a silhouette too, though I did not find one in the same file. Perhaps if Honoria did have a silhouette cut, it was later passed onto another friend or family member. Or perhaps Janet, on a stroll through London saw the shop and showed a particular interest. Either way, it would have been a nice little souvenier of the Livingston's wanderings in London.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Getting Comfortable: A Brief History of Sitting at Clermont

I will never forget it. The first and only time I have ever had the chance to sit in a magnificent, federal-era sofa. You see, in spite of being constantly surrounded by all this fabulous old furniture and material culture, we museum folk don't get to use it. It's an irony of the job.

But just one time I was helping to clean a very old home for a fund raiser. The house was filled with family antiques that were regularly used, and I just couldn't help myself. When left to dust a suit of red velvet-upholstered furniture from Chancellor Livingston's era, I took a deep breath, looked around, and sank gently onto it.

And then my heart sank. This may have been the most uncomfortable sofa I have ever sat on. The back was stiff. The arms were too high, and the stiff velvet prickled at the backs of my legs. I was severely dissapointed.

Why was it so uncomfortable? Amongst the 18th and 19th century American elite, sitting itself was regulated by some very specific rules of body control and decorum. Although it was important to look comfortable, actually getting comfortable--or at least what I consider comfortable--was a mark of "bad breeding."

Whilst in polite company slouching, tilting, crossing your legs, and even leaning too much against the back of your chair were all marks of the ill bred. For instance, check out Margaret Beekman Livingston here. Even at 69, her ramrod-straight posture appears to make no contact with the back of her chair. Despite looking at ease, her posture (probably aided by a good strong pair of stays or 18th century corset) still conveys dignity and a commanding pressence.

Painted in 1791, the Angus Nickelson family at right are no "slouches" either. In spite of owning a lovely set of uphostered furniture, not a single woman deigns to lean back in it. Even the daughter farthest to the right exhibits her excellent 18th century posture: back straight, with shoulders yanked backwards as far as possible. Only the patriarch in the family has enough clout to be allowed the slightest lean to left. By appearing to be the most at-ease, he takes some comtrol of the scene in this painting.

Furniture makers during these centuries were thus freed from the necessity of making their goods comfortable, and instead they could focus on the elements of style that made it fashionable. For many wealthy 18th century American families, a matched set of side chairs (like this one at Clermont) made up the seating arrangements in the drawing room or parlor. Resembling modern dining chairs, they were often stored with the rest of the furniture lined up along the wall and pulled into the center of the room when their use was required. Arranged in a neat half-circle, friends visited, chatted, and took tea together in chairs like this.

I don't know if you've ever had a reason to sit in a dining chair while trying to socialize, but it's not the sort of posture most of us are used to. But this straight-backed posture was just right for your visiting friends in 1775. In some households, this practice of using side chairs as the primary seating arrangement considered well into the nineteenth century, as you can see from this family at right (pictured around 1800).

But thank goodness, some measure of comfort was starting to make an appearance. Often linked with the old or infirm, a fully-upholstered easy chair was a mark of wealth and status. The high back and deep wings could help to catch the heat of the fire when pulled up tot he glowing hearth. Nevertheless, the comfortable aspects of this chair relegated it to informal spaces (bedrooms and studies) for many years.

But other upholstered furnishings were starting to show up in American parlors (the paragons of style and formality) as the 19th century progressed. The furniture of the Empire era was still stiff and the uphostery scratchy--horsehair was a favorite--but who careed since most of the time you were still expected to have good posture, and without shorts, your legs shouldn't have been coming into contact with the upholstery anyway.

The sofa above is from Clermont's drawing room, and it is a great example of this period. Its curved arms were suggestive of relaxation and leaning, something now occassionally showing in portraiture as women draped themselves artfully about, immitating Greek and Roman luxury like the Jaques-Louis David portrait at left.

So the drawing room at Clermont was beginning to look more comfortable, though, as I learned from my experiement, it was only feeling marginally better. Plus, the dignified Livingstons may have bought the furniture and relaxed their posture a bit (the ladies' stays had also gotten a lot less stiff), but as you can see from Angelica Livingston's portrait at right, they still weren't lounging about in the public eye.

But then we get deeper into the nineteenth century. Lounging begins to have its place--still not in the drawing room, mind you. But time for leaning, tilting, and reclining was on the horizon. The richly-carved Swedish chair, now found in Clermont's informal library, is just such an innovation. This late-ninteenth century chair bears big, squishy cushions on the seat and back (none of those stiff springs or stuffing of its drawing room counterparts), and the back reclines so far it almost looks like beach chair! Finally, an appropriate place to lean back and relax. And don't miss the footstool down there either; you won't have seen that in our earlier discussions.

Still other nineteenth century furniture gradually moved away from the stiff, straight backs of its predecessors. Belter style furniture curved gracefully around the body, seeming to mold itself around the body, and it was considered formal enough to make its appearance in more formal spaces, like Clermont's drawing room (at right, circa 1945).

It was the twentieth century that really relaxed however. While Alice Livingston kept Clermont's drawing room stiff and formal in the 1920s and 30s, she began permitting more comfortable arrangements in less formal spaces. At some point she purchased a Morris chair and squirreled it away in her bedroom. This early recliner was a bastion of comfort for many Americans.

More notably, this large sofa, located in the library, is the ultimate in early twentieth century comfort. Not only is the whole thing heavily cushioned, with rolled arms that will support relaxing bodies, but an arrangement of throw pillows was strewn across it.

Now we've just gotten a little comfort crazy, right? Gradually showing up on furniture (in the appropriate places of course--not your formal parlor) throughout the nineteenth century, throw pillows allow you to adjust a piece of furniture to support your every individual curve and bump. What an idea! Be gone stiff 18th century side chair! I'm getting comfortable.
As you can see, comfort was of gradually increasing importance in the construction of furniture construction over the past 300 years. As little innovations came in they worked their way into formal spaces as the American public relaxed the bodily restraints and postures that they had once used to distinguish themselves from the unrefined rabble.

While the easy chair of the 18th century was once bannished to secretive locations where leaning was acceptable, the cushioned sofa of the twentieth century eventually found its way into our living rooms, offering comfort not just to the secretive relaxer, but even to our guests.

For a great discussion of the historical importance of sitting and comfort, check out Katherine Grier's book "Culture and Comfort: Parlor Making and Middle-Class Identity, 1850-1930."

Friday, September 3, 2010

Sticky Wicket: Croquet at Clermont

My introduction to the game of croquet as a child was undoubtedly through Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

“'Get to your places!' shouted the Queen in a voice of thunder, and people began running about in all directions, tumbling up against each other; however, they got settled down in a minute or two, and the game began.”

Okay, okay--so I saw the Walt Disney animated version long before I read the book. But the silliness of watching flamingos knocking around hedgehogs was appealing--and to a child, the devious act of knocking around the other person's hedgehog was even better. A sport where you are encouraged to mess with the other players? Bring it on!

Croquet has a history that dates back as far as the 17th century and appears to have descended from the game "pall mall." Games with similar rules were described throughout the 18th century and early 19th, but the game became fully recognizable during its resurgence in popoularity around the middle of the 19th century.

At Clermont, the first written record I have found of croquet goes back to 1878. Clermont Livingston wrote on April 29th "Moved croquet ground," suggesting that the croquet court had already existed here before that. So it is reasonable to suggest that croquet was being played on our rolling lawns at least as early as the middle of the 1870s and possibly back to the 1860s when it first experienced its resurgence.

But back to that social aspect: Croquet's slow, steady pace made it an acceptable activity for adult ladies at a time when few other outdoor sports really were. Even better, it was appropriate for men and women to play at the same time. Ooh my!
While the whole "separate spheres" idea does get overplayed for the 19th century, it is true that young, unmarried men and women were always on the lookout for ways to spend time together (isn't that true now?). Structured activities gave them an excuse to be together while helping to reassure parents or other society members that the couple was, in fact, not doing anything innapropriate. For example, think of all those lovely romantic walks the characters take in Jane Austen novels. If a one-mile walk takes you an hour to complete, someone's going to get suspicious about what's been going on out there.

So croquet made for a great opportunity to flirt with the oposite sex. Much of the period art depicting croquet focuses on the parties being mixed-sex. An 1860s Harper's Bazaar article even lampooned women's participation in croquet and a number of sports for this reason. Were they really playing because they liked the game, or were they just playing to meet boys? Either way it only sort of mattered since a woman with too much competitive spirit was considered tom-boyish. (Think of Jo in Little Women earnestly challenging Laurie to an ice skating race. This was just one of many proofs that labeled her a late-blooming or failed "lady.")
Just look at the costumes for croquet if you need a little further proof that the game was as much for flirting as anything else. A primarily middle- and upper-class game, appropriate croquet clothes for women were decorative and almost as heavy and restrive as other day clothes. Corsets, bustles, and piles of petticoats allowed them to look fashionable and pretty but not to run around too strenuously. Add in short skirts that showed off those sexy ankles (which were usually only visible for a few lucky moments) and you've got a costume that's perfect for flirting. Of course, the necklines stay high, but let's not go crazy here!

Croquet continued as a backyard passtime into the twentieth century, when it found its most avid Clermont players in Clermont Livingston's granddaughters. Janet and Honoria took up the game in the 1910s and began to play on the mansion's back lawn. This wide, flat area "made an excellent croquet court" according to Honoria, and the two girls played all summer either as a pair or with additional friends.

Honoria's competitive spirit found its greatest outlet in croquet, and when Clermont became a museum and eventually began hosting annual Croquet Tournaments, she was sure to be counted in. In 1983, the first year it took place, she arrived solo for a doubles tournament, and partnered with a young man who also arrived alone. The two were a perfect match and together took first place in the Advanced Division, perhaps the perfect storybook ending to the day.
The Croquet Tournament is still an annual event here at Clermont. In 2010, in its 28th year, the tournament will take place on September 18th and 19th, the conintuation of a tradition going back through three generations of Livingstons.

Friday, August 27, 2010

A Fanciful Encounter

Inspired by the a young volunteer with a deep love for Jane Austen, I am taking a flight of fancy this week in writing our blog.

The novels of Jane Austin are more popular today than they ever were during her lifetime. Despite being about 200 years old, they have inspired half a dozen movies that I can think of in the past ten years as well clubs, events, and that crazy series of zombie books (I'm really curious about these!).

People love to get absorbed into her world. The Jane Austen Society of North America organizes book discussions, English Country Dances, and even trips to England (pictured at left) to celebrate their love of Austen's work and taste just a little bit of her era. Still other, less formal groups gather for tea parties and dress-up occassions that enable them to the escape into a world more interesting than the hum-drum of our daily lives.

While thinking about this, my own mind wandered off into a tangent of living "a day in the world of Jane Austen," and I began to think about Clermont during the same era. What sights and smells would an English visitor find here? Part of lure of Jane Austen's books for me has always been the creation of a believable world. So here goes:

"It is such a happiness when good people get together--and they always do." This quote from Austen's book Emma is posted on the JASNA website, and I'm going to borrow it to set the tone for this fictional visit.

The fall of 1807 is a good time for visiting Clermont. Freshly returned from France where he negotiated the Louisiana Purchase, the Chancellor is also flush with his most recent scientific victory: the first practical steamboat.

The trip up the Hudson (still called the North River) is a welcomed departure from the congestion of Manhattan. For $5, our visitor boards the steamboat at 5 'clock Saturday night and sleeps in one of births of common ladies' or gentlemens' cabins. On Sunday, gliding steadily against the tide at about 4 miles an hour, our English visitor is impressed with the heavily-cultivated valley. Large fields are now being harvested under the rising hulks of the Catskill Mountains.

The river is busy with boats, primarily sloops, many laden with fall harvests, and many at anchor awaiting the change in the tides or the river, but the steamboat moves on, belching smoke and occasionally a rather unnerving spray of sparks from its stack.

Once disembarked at the Red Hook dock, our visitor is retrieved by the Chancellor's carriage, and approaches New Clermont on "The Avenue" the road which runs along the river on the Livingston estate. Perhaps our visitor is as amazed with the fall colors as William Strickland was in 1794 when Clermont's trees glowed "the brightest yellow & orange...the most brilliant scarlet or purple. Europeans accustomed to the sober brown of their autumn, can form no idea of the splendor of that season, while the sun shines upon the woods."

Coming up from the south side in the failing sunlight (our visitor didn't even arrive at Red Hook until 5:00 according to the steamboat schedule), our visitor would first see an "English garden with only flowers and rare bushes...This little garden adjoins and loses itself in the wild promenade which descends to the river." (Niemcewicz, 1796). Perhaps this garden is a little torn up tonight, as Dollard, the new French or Swiss gardener whom the Chancellor brought back from his trip, is getting a head start on fall plantings. But some of the apple trees along the perimeter are heavy with late-season fruit, glittering red scattered in amongst the shifting leaves.

In the terraced courtyard in front of the mansion, the Chancellor himself greets our visitor, accompanied by his wife Mary, daughter Margaret Maria (shown at right with her best fringe of Grecian curls) and her husband Robert L. Livingston (shown above). There is just enough to time change for dinner in one of the guest bedrooms on the second floor (hung with fine French wallpapers, possibly in the popular new "French green," a color which used arsenic as one of its ingredients) before sitting down to a formal supper at nine o'clock.

The dining room is graced with stunningly large windows which face the setting sun and the Catskill Mountains. The furniture is in the simple, fine style which has been popular for a decade or so. In America it will later be called Federal; in England, Regency. In any case, the furniture is lightweight to the point of delicacy, with thin square legs, ornamented swags or chains of tiny flowers to reflect Classical Greecian and Roman taste, which Americans percieve as being appropriate for their new Republic.

The table is spread with a series of white linen clothes which are gradually removed as each new course is cleared. The "profusion, variety, and excellence of the dishes were quite remarkable; and when the cloth was drawn [dessert was served on a bare table], what exquisite pastries and confectionaries appeared!" An earlier English visitor paid the Livingstons his highest compliment with the summation there was nothing there "that might not have graced the best English table."

The Chancellor's wife Mary has taken the opportunity to use the new china just brought back from France. The Dartes Freres dishes are part of an 80 piece set, and tonight the meal is finished off with a dessert of pot de creme, a French custard served in individual little cups (matching the set of course!) to each diner (shown at left).

The meal has been served by something of a curiousity: a mix of white servants and black slaves. Americans are still wrestling with the issue of slavery, and although New York passed the Gradual Manumission act in 1799, the Chancellor still has a small number of enslaved people (probably 5) at his service. England has abandonded the practice of slavery, and it is a surprising novelty to most travelers.

Dinner conversation covers many polite topics though; mostly tonight it is about the curious nature of the Livingston's dependance on tenant farming, something which sounds decidedly Fuedal to our English visitor. Tenants, primarily of "German" origin (many descended from the earlier Palatine migration of 1711, but others of English descent) pay wheat or fowl annually to the Chancellor and provide him with several days labor. It's a system which has bennefited his family emmensely, only adding to their extreme wealth.

The wine has poured freely, and the Chancellor is on quite a rant about his sheep. He has been importing sheep from various countries, including Ireland, for years, but his most recent pride are four Merinos he got out of France. He seems to be quite bent on breeding them with his existing stock to enhance their own quality.

But our guest is sleepy. The ladies have long since retired to their own devices, and although it is only midnight, it is time for him as well. With a single candle, he climbs the stairs to his own bedroom and retires to bed, where he draws the curtains against the chilling fall air.

Clermont and the Chancellor's New Clermont (later called Arryl House) were some of the finest estates along the Hudson River, inhabited by some of the wealthiest of American citizens. In the wake of the steamboat success they were excitedly dreaming of the wealth it would bring them. Their homes represented the peak fashion and were now refreshed with new French imports. Almost any visitor would have been impressed.

However Jane Austen herself would not have received an invitation to the Livingston mansions. Lacking significant social standing or finances, she did not even gain fame from her novels, as they were published anonymously. , In 1807, Jane was facing one of the shakiest times in her life. She, her mother, and her sisters were without a permanent home, left in a state of confusion by her father's death. While other English guests marveled at the country estate, surrounded by attractive gardens and a peseant-like tentantry, Jane herself was facing entirely other realities at home.