Thursday, April 22, 2010

All That Glitters

There are some books that I find myself returning to all the time for quick research, and this one "At Home: The American Family 1750-1870" is one of those. A well-researched, topical survey of domestic life for some 120 years, it is still light enough to make for good lunchtime reading. That's exactly what I was reading when I was inspired to write today's blog.

Human beings seem to be attracted to shiny things. Like magpies, many of us can be lured with a bit of gilding or twinkling glass (diamonds are a girl's best friend?). In fact, the human eye is instinctively drawn to bright areas and flashes of light. Americans of the 18th and 19th century were certainly no exception this fascination with all that glitters.
Shining surfaces represented cleanliness and affluence. Sparkling silver, mirrors, cut glass, polished woods, even varnished wallpapers were consequently favored decorations for the homes of the wealthy and increaingly as we reached into the 19th century, the upwardly-mobile middle class. Consequently, a trip to an historic house museum can be a visually dazzling experience.

Take a look around Clermont the next time you are in the mansion. Almost every room is littered with bits that shine, but the rooms that got the most attention were the "best" rooms: the dining room and drawing room.
Metallic objects were a favorite way to bring shine into a home. On the dining table, silver flatwear and serving pieces were polished to a high shine. These pieces became increasingly accessible to more middle class households as the 19th century progressed, especially with the introduction of more affordable silver plated in the early 1800s (see the Library of Congress advertisment from 1840 at right).

Often in museums, you may see that some silver is not kept as highly-polished as it may have been by the household mistress. Since polishing silver actually removes a very small layer of the metal, 100 or 200 years of polishing can eventually wear away all of the silver on a piece! So some museums will try to minimize their polishing on historic silver.

Gold was also a popular way to add some sparkle to a room. Elaborately-carved wooden frames gilded with gold leaf surrounded paintings. Our golden eagle, who hangs in the stairwell is constructed just like a frame. Brought back from the France by Chancellor Livingston, this uncommon piece is built of wood structure, covered with gesso and then gold leaf. Bits of gold were also very popular on furniture of the Empire period (popular in the early 19th century) as well as some other eras. Why not draw attention to those little flights of fancy on tables and cabinets?

Gold's inherant softness meant that it could not be used alone to create serving trays or flatwear the way silver was. Instead, ormolu (or gold plated over brass) was used. The shining tea set that resides in Clermont's drawing room is a great example of 19th century ormolu pieces.

Metal was by no means the only sparkle around the house though. Dating "way back" (if you'll pardon my vagueness. Visit the Corning Glass Museum for more information), crystal clear glass was a sign of wealth. Flat planes of glass, called crown glass, to make windows were expensive, and the windows of "respectable" homes were expected to be shiningly clean. Mirrors were another large expanse of flat, clear glass. Often of great size and expense, they were both beautiful by themselves and practical. They bounced light around rooms that were often dark. At Monticello Thomas Jefferson even placed his mirrors directly across from windows where their light-bouncing effects would have the most power.

During the nineteenth century cut glass (and its later, cheaper cousin: pressed glass) also found its way onto dining tables and parlors where its tiny prisms could bounce light around in every angle. Chandeliers, like the small one in the study pictured at left, not only provided light from above, but turned twinkling candles into hundreds of dazzling stars. Cut glass pendants were also suspended from candle holders, called girandoles (pronounced with a soft "g" in the French manor). These were extremely popular in the late Victorian era and were often sold in sets, which adorned mantles and were often set in front of large mirrors (more sparkle).

Glass dishes of course found their way onto dining tables. Elaborate and expensive cut glass wass favored by the well-to-do, but more middling classes soon found options when pressed glass was developed in the 1820s. Whole matching sets, including glasses, tooth pick holders, cellery dishes, relish dishes, and a broad array of other serving pieces soon became a point of pride for many housewives.

We have quite an array of glassware from various periods in Clermont's collections so we rotate it several times a year.

Many other kinds of shine could be found in houses of the 18th and 19th centuries as well. As was mentioned earlier, fine woods were kept to a highly reflective polish. Mahogany and other dark woods were favorites, and it was during the Late Neoclassical Period of the early-mid 19th century (just after the Empire period. An example is pictured at left) that they really came into their own. Broad curving expanses of wood necessitated frequent dusting to keep them looking their best.

In fact, all of these twinkling, shining objects required constant attention to keep them at their best. Servants were kept busy with shining, polishing, and cleaning in a never-end "dog trot" routine. In houses with high asperations and no servants, these duties were left to housewives and any children trusty-worthy enough to handle the valuables.

As modern industry made these shining surfaces easier to replicate inexpensively, and cleaning products developed that minimized the time required to keep them looking good (when I think of all that "dust-resistant" spray product that my mother had me apply to her furniture!), the status that they represented became diluted. Sure shiney brass candle sticks are still a great way to wow guests at the dinner table, but the popularity of "Shabby Chic," "antiqued" finishes, and other things that mimic age and wear suggests to me that maybe we've been there, done that when it comes to the shine. Although maybe the Be-Dazzler could be used as evidence that I'm wrong.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Road Closures--Detour to Clermont

Starting on Monday, April 19, Route 9G (the most commonly-used road to Clermont) will be closed at the Roeliff Jansen Kill Bridge about 6 miles to the north. We don't like getting lost any more than the rest of you, so we thought we'd post some directions to make your trip as easy as it was before.

We are currently investigating additional signage to help point you on your way. I will update you as soon as details are available!

From the South: The detour signs may look intimidating, but 9G is open to local traffic. You can safely travel north on the usual route north on 9G to Clermont at the Columbia County border. The closure is 6 miles to the north and will not affect your journey.

We'll help you find your way north if you are headed to Hudson or Olana after visiting us!

From the North: The usual route to Clermont is south down Route 9G so this closure will affect your trip. Don't worry--the detour should only add about ten minutes onto your drive.

Follow the orange detour signs to Route 9 south. Follow Route 9 for approximately 9.5 miles to County Route 6 and turn right (if you are not from New York, county route signs are small, blue, and pentagonal with bright yellow lettering). Follow County Route 6 back to Route 9G, where you will immediately see the brown sign for Clermont.

Relax and enjoy the drive! This is the historic territory of the Livingston's. On this detour, you will pass through the hamlets of Livingston and Clermont (don't miss the historic church and school in the town of Clermont). Plus, I have always found the historic farms on Route 9 make for an exceptionally pretty drive. Keep your eye out for the bison farm at the end of County Route 6. There are not nearly enough opportunities to see bison in Columbia County!

A word of warning to large vehicles: County Route 6 is quite curvy. If you are driving a tour bus or other large vehicle, please contact us for the best route.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Suprises in the Little People's Scrap Book

The Little People's Scrap Book has been on the bookshelf in my office for years. This 19th century children's book has seen heavy use, and has the war wounds to prove it: childish pencil sribbles, torn pages, and some page stuck irreparably together. I always imagine it having been a favorite of Janet and Honoria when they were very little.

Not a story book with plot or characters, the Scrap Book's pages are instead filled with a wide assortment of spot illustrations. Like a girl's scrap book of the same era (the one shown at right is an image borrowed from The Curious Eye), the main intent is an attractive arrangement of pretty pictures.

These images range widely to include idealized pets, children at play, fairy tales, and anthropomorphized animals that remind me of a predecessor to later books by Beatrix Potter. Little captions are attached to each image, such as "A Sleigh Ride" (at left), "Pretty Ducks," or "Leap Frog." Some of the illustrations are a little remensicent of Kate Greenaway's work. It was probably a very good book to hand off to a child just under reading age since it would allow them to point and make up stories at will.

Although seems to indicate on the front page that it was originally published in 1853, the printing and children's costumes have always lead me to question this date. (For instance compare the more formal pinched waist in the 1865 illustration from Alice's Adventures in Wonderland at left with the relaxed, Colonial Revival costume in the illustration from the Scrap Book at right.) Perhaps a later, updated publication of an earlier book.

As I was paging through the book today, an illustration caught my eye for the first time. A kitten, depicted as a student in school, clutched a book and stared out at the reader with the caption "Kept in." From the window outside, friend-kittens peared in curiously--or mabye they are jeering; I can't tell.

It's a familiar story, right? Someone misbehaved and had to stay in for recess. But right away it made me think of another painting in the collections of the New York State Historical Association. It made me wonder if it was refencing the other image or just focusing on a popular moralistic theme.

"Kept In" is a well-known 1889 painting by E. L. Henry, whose late 19th century genre paintings were often treated as accurate depictions of historical life by their contemporaries. He frequently painted nostalgic scenes that prominently featured railroads, carriages, costumes, and sometimes racial issues (sometimes attributed to his stint in the Union Army during the American Civil War).

"Kept In" is an image that can, and has, be read in many ways (read novelist Jamaica Kincaid's remeniscences about it in the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Eye Level). Personally (as someone who spent a lot of recesses "kept in"), I always identified with the girl's defiantly relaxed pose and unrepentant gaze. The book at the girl's feet appears to be open where she gave up reading her assignment and instead turned to staring out the window.

But our little kitten in the Little People's Scrap Book has neither of those. Stripped of any possible racial readings by becoming another species entirely, his big eyes and hunched pose suggest to children's eyes that being kept in for bad behavior is a glory-less and unpleasant. This child too has books cast aside at his feet, but he hasn't given up working at his slate.

If is a reference to the Henry painting, which I tend to doubt, it has been rendered "appropriate" for its young audience. Cute and nonthreatening, this image is more likely a moralistic one that teaches the children who see it a useful lesson (behave, or else!).

Thursday, April 1, 2010

"The First Little Flower"

I am such a sucker for spring. I took a short walk in the garden this week, and my heart went all a-flutter to see nodding snowdrops, the magnolias just starting to bloom, and the daffodils up in full force. But I am not the only one at Clermont to feel this way.

After lonely months with the barren winter landscape and the wind howling down the Hudson River (and believe me, it does howl), Alice Livingston had a special place in her heart for spring. In her daughter Honoria's words, "She speant the winters here so to see the first little shoot and the first little flower really meant something to her."

It is sweet that as a mother, Alice encouraged her love of spring in her children as well. In her recollection, "The return of life in Nature, is hailed with great excitement by the children, and about this time they begin to talk of spring, in tones of mysterious joy."

It is no accident that Alice's favorite garden was the Spring Garden, an area to the south of the mansion, which she filled with early-blooming plants. This part of the house was ideal for nourishing early blooms, as the sweeping green bowl of land was sheltered from the wind and received enough sun to melt off the snow quickly in warming weather. She once wrote that she spent a great deal of time planning it out every year, each year making changes in an effort to get it perfect.

She selected plants that could "survive without covering," adding that she got "tired of litter and straw wrappings elsewhere before the spring comes, so this corner is kept free from them, and after much experiment I have found that there are plenty of desirable plants which flourish perfectly without the least protection." So eager was Alice to see spring bloom, that the remaining "litter" of straw that was needed to protect her fragile non-native plants was considered a misery to be avoided in this little haven.

As soon as the spring flowers were up, they were cut and brought into the house. The Lenten Hellebores were the first of these. "It is a great event with us when they arrive, and usually I place the flowers with some sprigs of boxwood, floating in a turqoise bowl."

Once a very young Honoria, eager to contribute, "came to me with pride, displaying the stumpiest of stems, a tiny violet bud. This she had discovered, in fact, literally unearthed from her own garden-lot, and as she placed it in my hand she asked me, with true childish confidence, to arrange it like the Lenten Roses--'floating in a bowl, Mother.'"

The familiarity of this story made me laugh! Hasn't everyone at some point received a single tiny flower from a child, eager to see it displayed in a vase? How do you arrange such a little thing? Alice, ever the concerned parent and flower arranging authority, settled upon a doll's tea cup a the appropriate vessel, and she proudly displayed her daughter's trophy.

Much later, in the late 1920s, Alice committed funds and forethought into increasing Clermont's spring floral display by expanding the Lilac Walk. The hill above her Spring Garden had been planted with a collection of purple and white lilacs since the early nineteenth century. But Alice added more traditional lilacs as well as a wide assortment of fancy French hybrids (we have the receipts in our collections showing these purchases).

Since then the lilac walk has become one of Clermont's defining features. Every May, the entire northern half of the grounds are filled with their smell (and the low hum of bees). Lilac bushes nearing 200 years of age tower over the path, while Alice's younger bushes (100 years old) nod just overhead. It is my favorite time of year, and a popular one for weddings too.

Around the same time, the peonies in the cutting garden begin to bloom. "This was the peony garden," announces Honoria, touring you through in our orientation video. These were a favorite flower for bouquets in the house. Today in Alice's honor we display faux peonies in the spring in the hallway, usually in the 18th century Chinese import porcelain punch bowl.

Soon after that come the mock orange bushes on the north (now those bring out the bees) and the whole cycle of flowers for the year really gets going.

When she grew up, Honoria liked the flowers as well. She was an active member of the nearby Germantown Garden Club and is still remembered fondly by several of the members. She always talked about these flowers with pleasure, but often as related to her mother. "That's a very old rose; she loved roses." I get the feeling that the flowers held as meaning to her not only for their own beauty, but for the joy they brought to Alice every spring when she was bidding a final goodbye to winter.